Saturday, February 26, 2011

A 2nd Amendment Justification - Is Violent Opposition to Dictators Obsolete?

"The best thing in life is doing things people say you can't do."
Jennifer Moore (b. 1972),
U.S. college student and ROTC midshipman captain.
As quoted in the Chronicle of Higher Education, p. A5 (April 21, 1993).
Said by the Boston University senior who was the nation's highest-ranking woman member of the Navy ROTC (Reserve Officer Training Corps).

I love the site, including their word of the day, and their hotword, which is why both are linked on our blog roll; I wish I could find a way to link their quote of the day, source of the above quote.  

Gene Sharp
The quote, including noting it came from 1993, prompted me to write this post, after I had begun reading online From Dictatorship to Democracy, a Conceptual Framework for Liberation by Gene Sharp  also written in 1993, as part of my following of the revolutions in the middle east.  It is a fascinating work, and I would encourage readers of Penigma to give it a look - it's free, by the way.
Not to long ago I made the observation on commenter MikeB's blog that the argument made by gun proponents and some of the more fringe extreme right wing which posited we all should have guns for the purpose of overthrowing our government if it became despotic.  I think the notion that it is despotic currently under the administration of President Obama is so lacking in factual support, or reason, as to be ludicrous, but even the premise that violent opposition and overthrow of the United States government is obsolete. I'm not arguing that we should therefore abandon the 2nd Amendment, only that armed opposition in this era of very different military equipment is unrealistic.
If our ability to have representative government were ever lost, then I would agree that the time had come to look at a change in our government.  But far from that, our government has systematically expanded the vote to larger demographics, not restricted it.  (It is ironically only those on the right who are eager to see fewer people able to vote by making it more difficult and costly to do so, on the factually unsubstantiated premise of voter fraud which they cannot demonstrate.)
Since the days of our founders successfully waging an admittedly military and guerilla-operation revolution against the forces of the King of England, a lot has changed.  The UK is our dearest, closest ally (although I would argue we couldn't ask for a better neighbor and friend country than Canada.)
I would argue that since the days of Mahatma Gandhi, the very nature of successful revolution has changed as well.  From the preface of Mr. Sharp's book:

One of my major concerns for many years has been how people could prevent and destroy dictatorships. This has been nurtured in part because of a belief that human beings should not be dominated and destroyed by such regimes. That belief has been strengthened by readings on the importance of human freedom, on the nature of dictatorships (from Aristotle to analysts of totalitarianism), and histories of dictatorships (especially the Nazi and Stalinist systems).
I have tried to think carefully about the most effective ways in which dictatorships could be successfully disintegrated with the least possible cost in suffering and lives. In this I have drawn on my studies over many years of dictatorships, resistance movements, revolutions, political thought, governmental systems, and especially realistic nonviolent struggle. (my emphasis added - DG)
As I watch the news recorded from yesterday while writing this, relating to the events unfolding in Libya, and news comes that the U.S. is imposing sanctions and the U.N. is discussing further sanctions, along with calls for Quadafi to be turned over to the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity, it seems likely that the days of that four decades plus regime are nearing an end.  Algeria, Bahrain, and Iran continue to be locations of turmoil, as Egypt and Tunisia begin to work towards a new government replacing the ousted despots.

I was intrigued by the article on Politics Daily penned by Alex Wagner, "After Egypt and Libya, What's Next for Those Still Under Dictatorships?", where she wrote :

Most certainly it resonated with the protesters being fired upon in Tripoli and Sabratha and Adjabiya and those fresh from Tahrir Square or still amassing in Tehran.

But it undoubtedly spoke to the hearts of those citizens around the world who looked to these revolutions with some combination of admiration and awe and hopelessness. People in places like Burma and Zimbabwe who feel that protest -- peaceful or otherwise -- is not an option for them and will not likely be any time soon.
As journalists have sought to untangle the disparate threads that unite these uprisings, one of the most interesting revelations has been a common reference to a dusty -- but still relevant -- book, "From Dictatorship to Democracy."
So, what is the significance of this particular book as it relates to the upheavals?  Wagner makes the connection clear:
Earlier this month, the New York Times proclaimed its author, Gene Sharp, a "shy intellectual" who had created "the playbook for revolution" -- noting that his work was posted on the Muslim Brotherhood website during the Egyptian uprising, and was cited equally among Tunisians, Bosnians and Estonians in their quest for freedom. So far, it has been translated into 41 languages. The book is a how-to manual for "liberation," dissecting classic protest strategies (sit-ins, leafleting) as well as more innovative options (selective resistance).(my emphasis again- DG)
This book has a direct link to Wagner, and to previous struggles, as much as to the current ones, which begins to address the concept that the struggles which we now look to for opposing dictators are primarily not opposition of violence, but rather that what succeeds is well-organized and essentially non-violent protest. (Which also provides an interesting perspective to free speech and dissent in Wisconsin and other states.)
Sharp, who at 84 is working on strategic nonviolent action at the Albert Einstein Institute, told me that "From Dictatorship to Democracy" began when Tin Maung Win contacted Sharp to contribute to a Bangkok-based publication he had started: the New Era Journal.
Sharp says he decided to write generally about nonviolent protest -- rather than specifically about the Burmese democracy movement -- because "I didn't know Burma. The only way I could write in that kind of discussion was to make it generic."

The resulting article was serialized, printed in pamphlets and would eventually become "From Dictatorship to Democracy." Years later, at the request of CDRB leadership, my grandmother, who was a Fulbright scholar, would translate it, and the text would finally return to the cause from which it was borne -- Burma.
The precise premise of my comment over on MikeB's blog is argued in Wagner's article, violent revolution versus nonviolent revolution - which is more likely to be successful, especially in the face of violent oppression by dictatorial regimes?
Bilal Rachid, the president of the CRDB, testified to the importance of Sharp's writings inside Burma. "It became source material for the courses we developed to teach activists in the jungles of Thailand," he said
Today, Burma is still widely acknowledged to be ruled by one of the most repressive regimes in the world. Human rights organizations have called for a U.N. Commission of Inquiry regarding govt-sponsored Crimes Against Humanity, including "widespread and systematic abuse and atrocities committed by the ruling military junta, government-sanctioned torture and rape, conscription of child soldiers, forced labor, complete censorship of the media, and political repression."
Because the brutal military regime remains as entrenched as ever, many Burmese now question the efficacy of peaceful protest.
Drawing parallels with the situation in Libya, Rachid asserts, "The Burmese situation is not going to change by nonviolent action. You're dealing with mobsters, criminals. We even saw in 1988 that they had no compunction about slaughtering our own people. They actually machine-gunned down the students."
He continues, "Personally, I believe the tactics have to be different. Peaceful nonviolence will not work." Gandhi, Rachid posited, was successful, "because he was dealing with a government that had a modicum of morality."
It is worth noting that Gandhi was resisting the same country's government that the United States revolted against violently.
Sharp is quick to dismiss such criticism. The Burmese, he says, "have done some remarkable demonstrations," but "they don't really have a plan as to how to undermine the regime." He adds that his "conviction that this is a viable form of protest remains as strong as it ever was. It's about people taking it seriously."
And yet, their story -- the story of Burma -- helped set into motion countless other revolutions, by virtue of Gene Sharp's 94-page manuscript, by virtue of the fact that people everywhere recognize the desire to "live like human beings" -- no matter the latitude and longitude separating them -- and that the story of oppression carries with it a powerful resonance.

If 2011 is the year for Egypt and Tunisia -- and just maybe a few others -- perhaps, for the Burmese, the revolution will be cyclical. The forces that inspired protest so many years ago might once again return to the banks of the Irrawaddy River -- in different form and fashion, but potent all the same.
another work by
Gene Sharp
I plan to revisit this premise throughout the rest of 2011, to review just how successful non-violent revolt and dissension really is - in contrast to more widely violent and armed attempts to overthrow oppressive regimes appear to be.  If the links to the effectiveness of Mr. Sharp's work in modern overthrows of dictators, then it behoves us all to be aware of the content, and to consider how it applies to our own lives and government.


  1. One thing I would point out to those who say civilians could not stand up to a modern military is that is only true if the military takes the side of the dictator. In Egypt the military mostly stood aside and watched as events unfolded. In Libya Ghadafi is brining in hired mercenaries because large parts of the military refuse to fire on the crowd. What you end up with the crowd facing is the personal guard of the dictator and while they are armed better than civilians they do not have artillary and air support.

    As far as the need for that here I really doubt we would see that in our lifetimes. Code Pink and Daily Kos screamed about Bush finding a way to stay in office after the election and he left on time just like every president before him. Obama has done a lot of things I don't agree with but nothing that would make me think he is trying to stay in office beyond 2 terms. Quite frankly look at before and after pictures of any recent president, 8 yrs of it (4 for a few) wears them out. I don't think any of them want the job longer than 8 yrs.

  2. I agree with your point, Tuck; but that said, do you honestly think that the military in Egypt would have been willing to change sides if instead of peaceful protest, the dissidents had been engaging them in a firefight? That is the essence in some respects of Sharp's writing.

    Respectfully, the observations of Gene Sharp are pretty insightful on how these things work. I would encourage reading him.

    I wish that everyone was as willing to believe that, as Angle put it, we are on the verge of using bullets to make the changes they failed to make at the ballot box in the 2010 election, with '2nd Amendment remedies'. That language has been wide spread on the right even during the Bush years. I don't recall anyone at Code Pink or the Daily Kos agitating for armed revolt if Bush tried to stay in office. The mess he made that caught up to him his last year or two, I'm sure he was quite clear that the country wanted 'W' out sooner, not later.

    On the other hand, courtesy of MikeB's blog, I was 'treated' to this:

    "Armed and Dangerous (The NRA, Militias and White Supremacists are fostering a network of right wing warriors)
    Rolling Stone Magazine/November 2, 1995
    By Leonard Zeskind
    "The second amendment ain't about duck hunting," Larry Pratt began. The crowd of 150 neo-Nazis and self-described Christian patriots laughed. Looking like a slightly rumpled accountant, Pratt, the executive director of the Washington, D.C., organization should be able to own the military assault weapon of his choice - and form a militia to back up his rights. It was October 1992, and the men - and they were all men - had traveled thousands of miles from more than 14 states, sometimes sleeping in their cars, to Estes Park, Colo., a resort town two hours from Denver, at the eastern entrance to Rocky Mountain National Park. Some of those who attended had already been to jail for their cause, and others were prepared to go. Although many of the participants had met before, this gathering was different. This meeting marked the birth of the modern militia movement that would tie well-armed radicals to gun advocates in a right-wing national network."

    That militia movement is larger, not smaller, than when this was originally written in 1995. It is the kind of jargon actively used by the right, including the language of Angle and far too many others, both Republicans and Tea Partiers.

    There are raional conservatives like you Tuck, who don't say those things.....but I regret that it looks increasingly that the conservatives have been hijacked by this kind of thinking.

    It is rampant on the gun loon blogs, the gun zealot's talk radio, and other media... and sadly, regardless of how stupid their notions are - and they ARE utterly unrealistic - they believe them zealously.

    THAT is the problem I am writing about - that kind of bizarre not-fact-based unreasonable fantasy thinking.

  3. wooops!
    Somewhere a word was dropped!

    "I wish that everyone was as willing to believe that, INSTEAD OF as Angle put it,"

    My apologies!

  4. I posted this in reponse to your comment at my blog and am reposting it here as well:

    The problem with asserting that the Second Amendment right is necessary for overthrowing “a tyrannical government” is conttradicted by the US Constitution’s Article III, Section iii, which defines treason. Treason is the only crime mentioned in the constitution. This makes perfect sense as the Constitution was written in response to Shays’ Rebellion.

    You are correct that a representative government precludes a “right to rebellion” in addition to the Article II, Section iii making such an act treason.
    Dennis v. United States, 341 U.S. 494 (1951) puts paid to the Insurrectionist theory:

    The obvious purpose of the statute is to protect existing Government, not from change by peaceable, lawful and constitutional means, but from change by violence, revolution and terrorism. That it is within the power of the Congress to protect the Government of the United States from armed rebellion is a proposition which requires little discussion. Whatever theoretical merit there may be to the argument that there is a “right” to rebellion against dictatorial governments is without force where the existing structure of the government provides for peaceful and orderly change. We reject any principle of governmental helplessness in the face of preparation for revolution, which principle, carried to its logical conclusion, must lead to anarchy. No one could conceive that it is not within the power of Congress to prohibit acts intended to overthrow the Government by force and violence. The question with which we are concerned here is not whether Congress has such power, but whether the means which it has employed conflict with the First and Fifth Amendments to the Constitution.

    Dennis affirms that you are correct.

  5. I don't think the militias make up as large a part of the conservatives as you think. Granted they agree with conservatives on more issues than they do with liberals but most of them are just anti government, conservatives (at least the ones I know and read) are anti big government.

    As far as the treason definition conflicting with the 2nd amendment being the last defense against tyranny there is no conflict. The whole point of the 2nd amendment was not so people could go out and start an armed revolt. The point was that every regime up to that time, and most modern ones since, that was considered tyranical started out by disarming the citizens. If a part of the constitution forbids the government from doing that the chance of establishing a dictatorship goes way down. Kind of like the US and Russia with all the nukes, both sides have so many neither side want to use them.

  6. The all-too-frequent talk of gun ownership as a means of keeping the government in check is absolutely ridiculous. It's ridiculous for the reasons you mentioned, the superior firepower at the disposal of the government compared to that which private citizens have access to. I find it fascinating that so many seemingly intelligent pro-gun folks preach this. I invented an expression to describe what I think accounts for it. They suffer from "grandiose victimism," a fairly common mental illness among gun culture types. They envision themselves fighting to the death against insurmountable odds. The really nutty ones actually think they'll win. But it's also pretty sick fantasizing about going down in a blaze of glory and bullets.

    I think the provenance of this psychosis, if you want to call it that, is the natural human tendency to justify and rationalize. These guys love guns for various reasons, some more legitimate than others, and they're faced with the continual accusations of gun control folks. Their minds naturally move towards the big justifications.

  7. Tuck (,

    While I respect the fact that you are a decent and generally informed commenter, and so say the following with as much respect as I can offer, your comment is off-target.

    This was never about whether peaceful demonstration could change the country. Clearly we have already seen it do so (the Civil Rights movement for one example).

    No, this is about the fact that there are some very deluded people out there who not only believe in "2nd Amendment rights" in the abstract, but also in the real world. They show up at Tea Party rallies toting guns and signs proclaiming they own a gun - it's a thinly veiled threat that if you don't do what I want (if I can win at the ballot box), I'll get the bullet box. That's a direct quote from a GOP state representative in Virginia.

    It points further to the vast acrimony and near frenzied contempt SOO many on the right hold the left in. It's so virulent they feel JUSTIFIED in killing those on the left if they don't win politically, or, at a minimum, they legitimately believe that if things don't go their way, armed insurrection, not peaceful protest, is the right method for change.

    The Dennis decision points out clearly that such armed insurrection is unlawful while the means to change government peaceably is at hand.

    So, with that said, and calling upon what I hope you will accept is considerable military experience, let me be totally frank - any group (even numbering in the millions) which attempted to change our government by force would be put down by force. There is a 0.0% chance in one billion they could succeed. When I was in the Army, units of the Army ROUTINELY practiced at putting down insurrection in cities. Certainly it comes down to whether, when the chips are down, those troops would fire, but don't rest your feelings of safety on that - for our troops in the Army, just like our troops manning nuclear missile silos and submarines are drilled on following through on such orders should they be given. Thus, the idea of 2nd Amendment remedies is a total fiction. It's euphamism for change the government by protest, which, TA DA, the liberals have been engaging in since the 1920's.

    With respect to militias, I'm sorry, I can't agree there either. Militias believe in a VERY limited government with services like Police, Fire and national defense to be paid for, but not anarchy. Conservatives believe in a government which benefits business and does little to protect the middle class, but BOTH believe in limited government - it's just a matter of degree out on the "how conservative are you scale" which defines conservative from reactionary (which is the proper name for politicos like Scott Walker and their followers). They hate union expansion of worker's rights, they love the military, and if it ain't handing money out to businesss, reactoinaries normally would rather the poor got nothing in the way of aid (or less, paid taxes on their meager incomes).

  8. Tuck follong your logic, every country where there is more limited gun ownership than the united states is a potential dictatorship.

    And since we ARE the country with the largest number of guns per capita (many times over) than any other country in the world, that is, respectfully, a ludicrous pro-gun position.

    Or, are you asserting that every other country in the world with fewer guns is a dictatorship?

    There is frankly no correlations whatsoever between the amount of gun restriction or limitation, and governments inherently becoming dictatorial.

    While it may be true that there have been dictators who have restricted gun ownership, there are far more countries which restrict gun ownership that are emphatically not dictatorships. Clearly having gun restrictions is not significantly characteristic of dictatorship.

    More than that, if by having hand guns and hunting rifles, citizens would still fail to overcome a dictatorship.....then it is still a silly argument that this is essential in some vague way to preventing tyranny.

    So unless you can present a more convincing case that gun restriction is specific ONLY to dictatorship, a consistent precursor of dictatorship, where it consistently follows as some correlation, then that would be a failed argument for that aspect or interpretation of the 2nd amendment.

    The militia movements expand and contract in size from one period of time to the next. It has been particularly vocal during the last election cycle, and it represents a really stupid and frankly rather distressing paranoia on their part.

    If these people have such a mistaken idea about what they can and cannot do, then what they are willing to attempt puts everyone in potential danger from their stupidity.

  9. Laci - an excellent comment.

    I wish more of those who claim to be strict constitutionalists (but are really more 'cafeteria constitutionalists')would be aware of both Article III iii, AND the Dennis decision as settled law.

    Beginning with our own nationally prominent bimbo, Congresswoman Bachmann, who has pretensions to teaching others about the constitution, along with the legions of other Bachmann-like wannabees.

  10. Dog,

    Tuck's point about nation's dissarming their citizenry is perfectly accurate - I'm not sure which point you're contesting, but if it's that one, he's absolutely right. Further, and probably importantly, the 2nd amendment right in part was enacted EXACTLY in reaction to the English government having disarmed its citizens in the 1600's (it left a bitter taste in the mouths of the citzens - including those decendents who moved to the Americas).

    But, this points out something, strict interpretation of the constitution leads to some rather antiquated conclusions. While, at one time, a citizen army might have overthrown the government, that idea is so far in the past (in terms of practicality), that it shouldn't bear on decisions today. If Jefferson or Adams felt giving citizens arms kept the government honest, so be it, but it doesn't mean that today.

    So, while I agree with your comment that high gun ownership rates hardly equates to liberty (unless you measure liberty by the amount of STUFF you own), Tuck is correct in saying it had been historically true that governments disarmed their citizens and he is correct that the 2nd amendment pretty clearly was enacted as a protection against that. Equally clear, though, is that such a protection is moot and when used to justify the extension of our "gun culture" it runs counter to the best interests of all of us. I would not see the right to bear arms stripped, but neither am I so foolish as to think it is anything more than a political football used to "gin up" those who put a little too much importance in being able to walk around with a .45 on their hip talking about liberty while they vote to deny such liberties as they desire to many others.

  11. My point is this, Pen. There are many countries which have far stricter, far more limiting gun ownership laws - the U.K. comes to mind.

    Those are laws determined by representative governments, they are not dictators.

    Yet the pro-gun crazies call that disarming their citizens.

    It is not even remotely the same as what dictators do.

  12. uhoh! Not the old gun control leads to genocide argument. There's a good refutation of that here:

    I would add in that tyrants don't really car if the populace is armed or not. In the case of Saddam Hussein's Iraq, the populace was very well armed. Saddam just used chemical weapons on the armed populace, e.g. Halabja:

    Likewise, the Libyans have arms, but el-Qaddafi's troops have used missiles on them. Additionally, the opposition has expressed concern that el-Qaddafi could use chemical weapons in the same way that Saddam Hussein did at Halabja:

    Firearms aren't too much use against poison gas and other weapons used bymodern military forces.

  13. Pen is right, my comments were about the history of why the 2nd amendment was put in. As far as low gun ownership leading to dictatorships I would not say that but the reverse is true, all dictatorships limit gun ownership, possibly because they know they will make a lot of people angry, frustrated, and ready to act if they have the means.

    As far as the present day US yes a modern military can put down an armed insurrection, hell George Washington put an end to the Whiskey Rebellion and the only difference between his troops and the people he was fighting was uniforms and training, they all had pretty much the same gun. Truly our best protection, should a president ever decide to extend his term and not be stopped by peaceful means, is the military. Remember that their oath is to defend the constitution. Yes there is a part that says to obey the orders of the president, however as soon as he does away with the constitution he is no longer president. And maybe a lot of the military would fire on the crowd if there were insurrections today, but if a president suspended the constitution, cancelled elections, and declared himself president for life, would they then? or would they join the crowd? Just so there is no confusion I seriously doubt it will ever come to that and certainly not in my lifetime.

  14. Pen, Thanks for that wonderful description. I go a bit further myself in disparaging the value of the 2nd Amendment in today's world, but essentially you said it just right for me.