WASHINGTON -- Try a thought experiment: What would conservatives have said if a group of loud, scruffy leftists had brought guns to the public events of Ronald Reagan or George W. Bush?
How would our friends on the right have reacted to someone at a Reagan or a Bush speech carrying a sign that read: "It's time to water he tree of liberty"? That would be a reference to Thomas Jefferson's declaration that the tree "must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants."
Pardon me, but I don't think conservatives would have spoken out in defense of the right of every American Marxist to bear arms or to shed the blood of tyrants.
In fact, the Bush folks didn't like any dissent at all. Recall the 2004 incident in which a distraught mother whose son was killed in Iraq was arrested for protesting at a rally in New Jersey for first lady Laura Bush. The detained woman wasn't even armed. Maybe if she had been carrying, the gun lobby would have defended her.
The Obama White House purports to be open to the idea of guns outside the president's appearances. "There are laws that govern firearms that are done state or locally," Robert Gibbs, the White House spokesman, said on Tuesday. "Those laws don't change when the president comes to your state or locality."
Gibbs made you think of the old line about the liberal who is so open-minded he can't even take his own side in an argument.
What needs to be addressed is not the legal question but the message that the gun-toters are sending.
This is not about the politics of populism. It's about the politics of the jackboot. It's not about an opposition that has every right to free expression. It's about an angry minority engaging in intimidation backed by the threat of violence.
There is a philosophical issue here that gets buried under the fear that so many politicians and media-types have of seeming to be out of touch with the so-called American heartland.
The simple fact is that an armed citizenry is not the basis for our freedoms. Our freedoms rest on a moral consensus, enshrined in law, that in a democratic republic we work out our differences through reasoned, and sometimes raucous, argument. Free elections and open debate are not rooted in violence or the threat of violence. They are precisely the alternative to violence, and guns have no place in them.
On the contrary, violence and the threat of violence have always been used by those who wanted to bypass democratic procedures and the rule of law. Lynching was the act of those who refused to let the legal system do its work. Guns were used on election days in the Deep South during and after Reconstruction to intimidate black voters and take control of state governments.
Yes, I have raised the racial issue, and it is profoundly troubling that firearms should begin to appear with some frequency at a president's public events only now, when the president is black. Race is not the only thing at stake here, and I have no knowledge of the personal motivations of those carrying the weapons. But our country has a tortured history on these questions, and we need to be honest about it. Those with the guns should know what memories they are stirring.
And will someone please tell the armed demonstrators how foolish and lawless they make our country look in the eyes of so much of the world? Are we not the country that urges other nations to see the merits of the ballot over the bullet?
All this is taking place as the country debates the president's health care proposal. There is much that is disturbing in that discussion. Shouting down speakers is never a good thing, and many lies are being told about the contents of the health care bills. The lies should be confronted, but freedom involves a lot of commotion and an open contest of ideas, even when some of the parties say things that aren't true and act in less than civil ways.
Yet if we can't draw the line at the threat of violence, democracy begins to disintegrate. Power, not reason, becomes the stuff of political life. Will some group of responsible conservatives, preferably life members of the NRA, have the decency to urge their followers to leave their guns at home when they go out to protest the president? Is that too much to ask?
E.J. Dionne, Jr. is the author of the recently published Souled Out: Reclaiming Faith and Politics After the Religious Right. He is a Washington Post columnist, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, and a professor at Georgetown University.