Saturday, March 5, 2011

just say no to evil

Here is something I meant to blog about a few weeks ago, but life got in the way. For Reason, Radley Balko interviewed Stewart Rhodes, the founder of Oath Keepers. In Rhodes' words:

The mission of Oath Keepers is to persuade the guys with the guns not to violate the Constitution. I look at it as constitutional triage. I worked for a congressman; I've worked with judges. And it seems clear to me that judges and politicians don't really care about our rights that the Constitution is supposed to protect. So I'm focusing on the guys with the guns, the ones who ultimately enforce the laws, on educating them about the Constitution.
So the point of Oath Keepers is to remind the military and law enforcement that they are supposed to be thinking about the Constitution, and especially the Bill of Rights, and they need to be thinking about the lawfulness of the orders they're given. And they actually have a duty to refuse when it's unlawful or violates fundamental human rights.
And, importantly:
Reason: Is there any scenario under which you would encourage your members to respond to a government policy with violence?
Rhodes: No. That's the strange thing about the criticism we get. The entire point of Oath Keepers is to advocate nonviolence. We're telling police and soldiers that if they're asked to do something unconstitutional, or asked to violate the rights of Americans, that they put down their guns. We just saw this with the Tunisian military, by the way, when it refused orders to fire on protesters.
I was impressed with the entire interview and, reading it, one really gets the impression Rhodes would feel right at home working alongside the ACLU. I think the idea of the group is incredibly powerful, and one need look no further than the current goings on in the Arab world to see his idea in action in a benevolent, world-historical way.

I've always wondered if the very act of learning about the Milgram experiments, learning that perfectly normal people can be tricked into committing deplorable acts, might go some way toward lessening the likelihood of being similarly tricked into evil. (I suppose this is testable: repeat the Milgram experiments and look for a difference in behavior between groups according to their familiarity with the original study or related research/life experiences.) I view the Oath Keepers as an attempt to engender a culture of preparedness. It's a way of teaching "You might be called upon to do evil. It could actually happen. Even in this country you love, even by these men and women you admire. Be prepared to throw down your weapon." I'm guessing people just don't think about that possibility when they join the police or the military. After all, there's a strong chance they have made their career decisions at least in part because they already hold their institutions in high esteem.

But of course there are critics. Justine Sharrock in Mother Jones painted a rather dark portrait of the group, zooming in on some particularly nutty members. I'm quite sure the individuals in the Mother Jones piece were cherry-picked, but I also wouldn't be surprised much of the group really does consist of conspiracy theorists who are convinced every democratic president secretly wants to turn the US into one big United Nations concentration camp. I don't think Rhodes encourages any of this, and he seems embarrassed by some of his membership, but I think it's fair to judge an organization by its actual make-up. And it certainly didn't help matters that he only founded Oath Keepers after Obama took office. Given the disproportionate representation of conservatives in the military (and police too, I believe, although I couldn't find an easy number with a quick Google), some of this is inevitable.

Still, I'm disappointed that this really brilliant idea has been so heavily attacked by liberals for what I suspect are mostly reasons of tribalism. If liberals think it might be a good idea for the people with the guns to consult their consciences before committing atrocities but are scared the Oath Keepers is full of batshit right wingers, then they should join the Oath Keepers to give it some ideological balance. Or at least encourage their liberal friends in the military and police to do so.

Interviews of Stewart Rhodes by Bill O'Reilly and Chris Matthews.


  1. There's a guy in the bay area oath keepers whose a Facebook friend and he is pretty far left. If tribalism is the reason for the left's distaste it tells me they are simply ignorant of who is even in the oathkeepers and perhaps just assume that talking about the constitution makes you a rightwinger, you know... like Dennis kucinich and Russ Feingold.

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  3. Thanks for the anecdote! I myself made a lot of assumptions in this post about the membership. I hope I'm wrong. Oath Keepers is very young. It will be interesting to see how it evolves.