in 1775, the outbreak of the American Revolution. The British marched from Boston to seize arms accumulated by Americans. The 1st shots were fired at Lexington, the badly outnumbered Americans fell back. The next engagement was at Concord. By then several hundred Americans had gathered, At North Bridge they drove the British back, and as the Redcoats retreated towards Boston, continued to fire upon them from behind rocks and trees. More troops marched from Boston to rescue the endangered column. they retreated to Boston, where the colonists cut them off and began the siege of Boston.
This is an important day in Beantown, one experienced as a Marine ’66. The Post band at Quantico, came up, playing at a gathering the night before. We were near Concord Bridge for the ceremonies the next morning (only 20 feet from the cannon firing every minute), finishing the day at the end of the Marathon on a day when the Japanese finished 1-2-3-4.
Like other Americans, my memories of the date are clouded by violence of a different kind – the 1993 siege of the Branch Davidians in Waco, and two the terrorism of Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols at the Alfred P. Murrah Building.
Today I reflect upon violence.
Of course April 19th holds an important place in our national memory. We have the image of the Minutemen, dropping their plows and grabbing their muskets. Only Lexington and Concord were not entirely unexpected, and the response began as soon as the British began their march out: American spies knew the British would be coming, They sent out three messengers: Samuel Dawes, Paul Revere and William Prescott, with the latter two joining Revere after he had managed to ride out from Boston to sound the alarm.
The events of that morning had been building for several years. I will not recount the prior history except to remind people of the Boston Massacre of 1770 and the Tea Party of December 16, 1773, the latter which led to the occupation of Boston by the British.
The idea that Americans would respond to a threat of force or tyranny with force of their own took shape in the iconic image of the Minuteman, celebrated in poetry by the Longfellow:
Listen my children and you shall hear
of the Midnight Ride of Paul Revere
and Emerson’s “Concord Hymn”:
By the rude bridge that arched the flood,
Their flag to April’s breeze unfurled;
Here once the embattled farmers stood;
And fired the shot heard round the world.
For better or worse, our nation was born at least in part through violence, and we have celebrated that violence, however justified it may have been.
The image of Lexington and Concord has shaped our understanding of the 2nd Amendment, which does, after all, refer to a well-regulated militia. We have from time to time heard arguments about what a militia is: after all, McVeigh and Nichols were involved with a group calling itself the Michigan Militia, even though it was not under government regulation and the Michigan National Guard was. And Waco, the siege of the Branch Davidian compound, was in large part because of weapons – it was ATF that went in. Just as the earlier siege in Ruby Ridge was because of weapons. And that siege was connected to Waco because of a visit by Randy Weaver.
I do not wish to justify or glorify violence. I acknowledge it. I recognize that at times its use is unavoidable. I also acknowledge that once one begins rationalizing the use of violence, it is very easy for things to spin out of control. Was it justified for the FBI to try to take out Randy Weaver when he was barricaded with his wife and family? Did the shot taken by FBI sniper Lon Horiuchi qualify as an act of murder? After all, while the case was transferred to Federal jurisdiction where the charges against Horiuchi were dismissed, the Federal government wound up paying millions to the Weaver family for the deaths (including Weaver’s wife) that occurred. Was she merely collateral damage in an otherwise justified use of force?
What then about Waco? Was “David Koresh” a madman who was jeopardizing the lives of women and children in the compound? After all, we had already seen the mass deaths of another religious cult in Guyana, the willingness to kill any who might be viewed as threatening the survival of the cult.
What about an atmosphere of paranoia, of black helicopters? What about the escalation of rhetoric that could feed that paranoia?
What about books that fantasize violence against the government? Why is it so often that these mental constructions about violence somehow wind up also being virulently anti-Semitic, as were the Turner Diaries of William Pierce that so influenced Timothy McVeigh? That book argued for the elimination of Jews and of non-whites. As we reflect on this day, on what McVeigh did, and look at our own time, we may remember the racism because we have a president with a Black skin, but with the last name of Bernstein I cannot forget the antisemitism, something the various “Aryan” groups have in common with much of the Klan, which also bombed synagogues in the South.
I teach government. I am very pressed for time to prepare my students for tests – my AP students have their exam two weeks from this morning, and we lost 9 days to snow. Perhaps I should not take the time to explore these issues. But I make a point of finding the time for relevant events around us. And this is relevant. How can I not carve out the time to help them understand? My students range in age from 14 to 18. The oldest were small children at the time of Oklahoma City, and few were even alive at the time of Waco.
Each year when this date comes around I worry. Perhaps there will again be violence on this day, or on the day that follows, which is the anniversary of the massacre at Columbine High School in Colorado. That is only 11 years ago, and those of my students who are seniors have some memories of the television from that event.
I was a Marine. One thing I learned during my service in the mid-1960s is that for the average person it is not easy to deliberately kill another human being. We can do so in rage, we can do so in anger after we or those and that we love have been attacked. I never saw combat, but from friends who did I also learned that one was changed by the act of taking another life. I am grateful I have not had that experience.
One is also changed by experiencing violence towards that one values, either personally or in principle. When that happens, it seemingly becomes easier to rationalize one’s own use of violence, to overcome whatever reluctance one may have, even if it results in “collateral damage” beyond the target at whom we aim our anger or our retribution.
Gandhi is reputed to have said that an eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind. I do not know if he actually offered those words, even as I acknowledge they seem an accurate representation of his beliefs and life. In sports we have the likes of umpires – a retaliatory hitting an opposing batter is sometimes prevented by a warning, and often responded to by rejection and fine. There is an external power that can say “enough” before the violence escalates out of control.
Yet we glorify violence and the willingness to stand up for one’s own, certainly in sports with loops of violent hits in football and hockey, in your face dunks in basketball, . . .
There are times when one must stand up. Violence may become part of what is required. That was certainly so 235 yearss ago this morning, in the suburbs of Boston, where this date first acquired its honored position on our calendar.
It is unfortunate that memory of that day cannot avoid the memories of Waco and of Oklahoma City. Perhaps someone with historical memory might have timed the raid on the Branch Davidian compound for some other day, any other day, on the calendar, to avoid the association that enabled the likes of McVeigh to claim a connection with the patriotic events of 1775. Perhaps April 18th or 20th would not have made a difference. I truly do not know.
Like many who read this, I will listen to what Rachel Maddow will offer tonight, the McVeigh tapes. For some, the main attraction may be that part of the human soul that finds a need to slow down and look at car crashes. For me, it will be at least equally if not more an attempt to more fully understand a mind set that is alien to my own experience and way of thinking.
Patriot – the word comes from Patria, homeland. It has great appeal, not merely to fans of Tom Brady or the George Mason U basketball team (and that university is named after one who demonstrated his own patriotism without ever bearing arms in combat, but by refusing to agree to a Constitution without protection for individual rights and liberties). I love this nation, I love what I as the descendant of immmigrant Jews has been able to experience in education, in political participation, in my ability to be able to criticize my government when I think it is wrong.
Less than two weeks before the events of Lexington and Concord, Samuel Johnson, according to Boswell, opined that “patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel.” We do not know what the good doctor intended by those words. At times they are used to be dismissive towards those who are passionate about this country, who honestly believe that criticism of the country is somehow unpatriotic, who might be used by demagogues to suppress political opposition.
I am not sure what meaning I should ascribe to Patriotism. I know that at some point violence seems an unavoidable consequence of the human condition, and the willingness to resort to violence, however reluctantly, may be necessary to ‘secure the blessing of liberty to ourselves and our posterity” as we read in the Declaration.
However reluctantly. And it is here that I can begin to separate the events of the 1990s from the iconic events of 1775. The violence of Lexington and Concord was offered in resistance to violence, implied and actual, being advanced by the British Army. Leaving aside for now Waco, what McVeigh did in 1995 cannot be viewed as a reluctant resorting to violence, but rather as a deliberate attempt to foment more violence. That to me besmirches whatever real meaning one might find in the events of 1775.
“the shot heard round the world”
I will not glorify the events, but I will acknowledge the willingness of those New Englanders to sacrifice, including the sacrifice of a part of ones own soul in the taking of human life.
And I will again return to the words of the Declaration, which acknowledges what they did as the signers of that document could read just above where they affixed their own names:
And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.
our sacred honor – where is there honor in blowing up a building that houses a day care center? And, to return to Waco, to understand the anger it involves, at what point is the application of force in a situation that at worst represents a stalemate violate a sense of honor?
I can offer no easy conclusions. Insofar as people differ in experience and outlook, they will interpret things in radically different and seemingly contradictory manners. That is true of words, it is true of history. What the Constitution and the Declaration mean to me are evidently not the same as they do to those in “militias” or even some on the Supreme Court. While I have never resorted to physical violence to advance my viewpoint at the expense of one with which I disagree, I understand that I am fully capable of doing so if pushed far enough.
Those in New England chose to draw a line. In part, the nation we enjoy is a direct result of what they did, of the violence in which they participated. If we honor this nation, we cannot avoid honoring them, including their violence.
I believe that was a violence born of sacred honor. I see it at least in part as reluctant but necessary violence.
I attempt to make such distinctions, even as I acknowledge the real possibility of a slippery slope, the best experience of which I have had is to see someone foolishly start going down the lakeside slope of Sleeping Bear Sand Dunes, and watching how he had to be rescued.
our lives, our fortunes, our sacred honor
a three-fold statement that somehow reminds me of Corinthians, of faith, hope, and charity
in each case the last of the three is perhaps the most important.
For me, honor requires me to respect the humanity of others, even as they may be the most deadly possible adversary.
Today is Patriot Day. It is a day associated with violence.
But it is so much more. It is day of honor, of commitment, of sacrifice.