by David Safier
Occasionally I've linked to one of the weekly columns I write for The Explorer, but I've never copied any of them here. I'm breaking with tradition and putting this week's column below. It came out of some posts and comments on BfA about a quotation used by right wingers (I won't even say ultra right wingers, because it's spread further than that):
“The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to
time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.”
Here's the column.
In 1995, Timothy McVeigh bombed the Federal Building in Oklahoma
City. It was the worst act of homegrown terrorism in our nation's
When he set off the truck bomb, McVeigh was wearing a
T-shirt that read: "The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to
time with the blood of patriots and tyrants." The words, taken from a
letter written by Thomas Jefferson, were ripped out of their context to
justify the cold-blooded murder of 168 innocent Americans, including 15
children in a day care center.
It is outrageous — beyond
outrageous — that members of the right wing of the Republican Party
have adopted these words which will always be linked with the Oklahoma
City bombing as their own. But adopt them they have. Just Google the
phrase. You'll find it on countless ultraconservative websites. And
you'll see it emblazoned on posters at Tea Parties across the country.
their own sick, deluded way, the people shouting this slogan are
applauding Timothy McVeigh as a hero and pledging allegiance to the
idea that slaughtering innocent Americans is a justifiable act of
rebellion, even patriotism.
Read the quotation again: "The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants."
who repeat it fly into a rage at the thought of a Democratic President,
and especially Obama, sitting in the White House. They believe slinging
a rifle over their shoulders at an anti-Obama rally is an act of
patriotism. These people are proclaiming in no uncertain terms, "We are
perfectly willing to resort to violence if we think the Democrats have
gone too far. So watch out, Barack, we mean business!"
"But Jefferson said it, not us," they protest. "See, even the Founding Fathers support our righteous cause!"
fact, no. While it's true Jefferson wrote those words in 1787, the
point he was making should make the people who use the quotation today
blush – if they were capable of shame, that is.
Earlier in 1787,
the U.S. government put down an armed rebellion in Massachusetts, known
as Shays' Rebellion. Jefferson wrote in his letter that the rebellion
was wrong — "founded in ignorance" were the words he used — and the
government was right to put it down. But he didn't want the rebels
punished too harshly, because they considered themselves patriots. "The
people cannot be all, and always, well informed."
believed it's sometimes reasonable to "pardon and pacify" patriotic
fools — but only after we "set them right." Personally, I wouldn't want
to be associated with a quotation that called me a fool, even a
patriotic one. But then again, I don't take marching orders from Glenn
Beck, the crown prince of village idiots. So maybe these people don't
And if we look at a letter Jefferson wrote a few months
earlier, we find him singing the praises of the United States because
we, unlike European nations, have a government that allows us to
resolve our differences without resorting to violence.
for us," Jefferson wrote, "that when we find our constitutions
defective and insufficient to secure the happiness of our people, we
can assemble with all the coolness of philosophers and set it to
rights, while every other nation on earth must have recourse to arms to
amend or to restore their constitutions."
I'll let scholars who
have pored through Jefferson's voluminous writings argue over the
details of his political philosophy. But I know he believed in the
peaceful revolutions we call "elections" that happen every few years
in this country. In the last one, voters gave Obama a sizable majority
and chose to put more Democrats into Congress than Republicans. Next
year, voters will get another opportunity to change the balance of
power using the democracy our Founding Fathers bequeathed to us
without, we can hope, dangerous fools resorting to violence or threats