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‘Right of Revolution’

The Tucson shootings and Second Amendment theology.

In the wake of the Tucson massacre, the left is attributing the violence at least partially to a “climate of hate” encouraged by anti-government extremists on the right—the phrasing used by Paul Krugman in his latest column—a reaction made easier by conservatives’ frequent use of violent and intimidating rhetoric since 2008. Conservatives have responded by alleging the politicization of a random act of violence by a lunatic, and sought to place themselves in the ranks of victims of the event. Once upon a time, this kind of shooting would have produced a big discussion about the risks of widespread private gun ownership, but that was before the very idea of gun control became politically toxic in most of the country, and practically unfeasible in the wake of recent Supreme Court decisions. So I won’t expend many words exploring the core meaning of this terrible event.

But there is one habit of conservative rhetoric that is relevant to the events in Tucson, and it would be helpful to single it out for condemnation instead of indulging in broad discussions about the “climate of hate.” It’s the suggestion that Americans have an inherent “right of revolution” which entitles them to deploy violence when they are convinced that government officials are trammeling on their liberties, and that we are at a stage of history where such fears are legitimate.

This is the nasty underlying implication of Sharron Angle’s remark last year that “Second Amendment remedies” might be necessary to deal with policies supported by her Senate opponent, Harry Reid. And it’s been the subtext of many years of conservative rhetoric about how the Second Amendment is the crown jewel of the Constitution because it ensures a heavily armed citizenry that can take matters into its own hands if government goes too far. In combination with Tea Party militants’ open assertions that the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010 and marginal increases in the marginal tax rate represent an intolerable tyranny, reminiscent of the British oppression that made the American Revolution necessary, this belief that Americans should be stockpiling weapons in case they have to stop voting against government officials and start shooting them is extremely dangerous. And yes, this is the sort of thing that could help motivate a nutjob like Jared Lee Loughner to exercise his own right to revolution against the socialist tyrant Gabby Giffords.

The invocation of the right to deploy “Second Amendment remedies” would probably get a different reception if radical Islamists or black nationalists went around saying they wanted to do so in order to prevent federal tyranny. But the situation is no different.

I’d like to think the tragedy in Tucson would convince conservatives (and anyone on the left with similar tendencies) to begin showing more respect for the rule of law and democratic processes even if they produce results they don’t like—which would mean no more talk about liberals or Democratic politicians or “bureaucrats” as if they belong to a different country or even a different species, and no more suggestions that conservative policies are mandated by some higher law, divine or natural.

But at a minimum, I think circumstances call for this: an absolute self-disciplinary ban among conservatives against revolutionary rhetoric, particularly in conjunction with defense of the right to possess lethal weaponry.

Ed Kilgore is a special correspondent for The New Republic.