I was invited to join a civil resistance affinity group a few weeks ago. The object would be a criminal trial (with one or more of us as defendants) in which lethal or injurious government policy becomes the key issue.
It put me in mind of Thoreau’s essay of 150 years ago on civil disobedience, in which he advocated the violation of bad laws. He protested a war tax, was found guilty of non-payment, and was carted off to jail by Massachusetts authorities. As often happens, his jailers promptly freed him, and so his martyrdom was short-lived, but his example lives on. A good number of the peace activists of my acquaintance have been arrested at least once.
Civil resistance differs from civil disobedience in that the resister seeks vindication and not martyrdom. A civil resister takes steps–illegal ones–to impede government in some injurious activity. The defendant then pleads to the jury that his actions were necessary to prevent greater harm.
There’s an illustrative case pending in Utah involving an auction of federal oil leases during the last days of the Bush presidency. The lawbreaker made bids at the auction that he didn’t intend to fulfill–a federal crime–and he’s defending himself now with the claim that his act of sabotage saved some sensitive federal lands from injurious exploitation.
The so-called tea-baggers celebrate an act of political lawbreaking–the Boston Tea Party–that could be a model for civil resistance. A couple of years before the Declaration of Independence, a group of men protesting a tea tax boarded a British ship in Boston Harbor to deep-six its cargo of tea. It was a spectacular act of defiance, one that would be called terrorism if it happened today. The tea-baggers of 1773 disguised themselves and were never prosecuted, but they might have raised the defense of necessity if they’d been caught. Twenty-first century tea-baggers don’t seem to grasp that they’re terrorist wannabees
Consider the implications of joining a civil resistance affinity group. At some point, the members would be conspiring to commit a crime, which is itself a crime. The defendants might encounter some problems proving that plotting to chain themselves to the federal building, for example, could in some way save lives or impede some injurious government policy.
An alternative course might be to plot a serious crime–”rendering” Joe Lieberman, say–with no intention of actually carrying it out. Conspire openly, but limit the whole exercise to fiction. Meet every week to consider ways to abduct Joe Lieberman, but don’t do anything to make it happen. Legally, you’re as innocent as Agatha Christie. Maybe you publish your proceedings in a journal, and maybe somebody picks up your plan and takes Joe for a ride. If Joe gets kidnaped and the plotters get arrested, they can plead that they were simply writing fiction and at the same time trying to deter the nefarious senator from his lethal mission.
Obviously, there’s a potential for liability here, especially when the target is a government that, in defiance of its own laws, imprisons suspects without legal process and, in some cases, summarily evaporates them with guided missiles. Still, it’s tempting to contemplate a brainstorming session on ways to commandeer one of those pilotless bombers and send it in a new direction.