Tyranny, From Tim McVeigh To Ginny Thomas

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>Among other items of evidence seized from Timothy McVeigh's car when he was arrested 15 years ago next month outside of Oklahoma City was a papered quote from Samuel Adams. "When the government fears the people, there is liberty," the quote read. "When the people fear the government, there is tyranny."

Lest anyone remain unsure about McVeigh's motivations for the cold-blooded murder of 168 innocents at the Alfred P. Murrah federal building on April 19, 1995, the self-styled "patriot" wore to the attack a t-shirt with the Latin inscription: "Sic Semper Tyrannis" and the Thomas Jefferson line: "The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants."

At the time, however, even in the shadow of the Branch Davidian siege near Waco or the fiasco at Ruby Ridge, this sort of "tyranny" talk was universally considered back then to be part of the right-wing fringe. It was the stuff of shadowy militia groups and bigoted paranoids but out-of-bounds for mainstream politicians and scorned by official Washington. In fact, McVeigh's cowardly attack marked a sharp pause in loose talk about tyrannical government; the faces and stories of the dead and wounded taken from the Murrah building silencing to shame the notion that federal employees (or their elected representatives) were anything but exactly the same as the rest of us.

That was then. This is now. Today, loose, dangerous talk about "government tyranny" is back in vogue (evidently its sinister design appears regularly during middling Democrat administrations but never during power-grabbing Republican ones) and on a political amptitude far beyond where it was during the Age of McVeigh a generation ago. Twenty-first century tyrants abound in the hearts of little old ladies at tea parties, in the minds of erstwhile government officials (who evidently aren't tyrants themselves) and on the lips of at least one outspoken spouse of at least one underspoken justice of the United States Supreme Court.

In other words, what the nation rejected as superheated lunacy and dangerous incitement out of McVeigh's mouth in 1995, tens of millions of Americans now praise as patriotism from popular figures. What the militia movement lost in support following McVeigh's attack it has gained a thousand times over by the current devolution in the language of dissent. Now, the nation's mainstream conservative forces routinely employ the overcharged language of "tyranny" and "tyrants," mongered as righteous fear and loathing by mainstream media outlets, in a way unthinkable back in the McVeigh's day.

The most disturbing recent example of the use of the "tyranny" saw was offered up by Virginia Thomas, the wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. She told a conservative blogger last month that she wanted to get more involved in conservative politics because "we're headed for tyranny" in government. One month later we are still waiting to hear what she precisely meant by that remark, what specific sort of government "tyranny" currently in use or on the horizon worries the spouse of one of the most powerful people in government, whose salary and perks we all pay for.

Indeed, who exactly are the government tyrants against us? What is the bill of particulars against them? Do local bureaucrats morph into "tyrants" just because they want to change the contents of textbooks? Are officials in Washington leading us toward tyranny because of bank bailouts or health care? Really? But how can the federal government be at once tyrannical and inept? Aren't the two mutually exclusive? If Barack Obama were as malevolent as the Tyrannists claim he is, then why hasn't he been more successful? And where were these emergent tribunes of tyranny when Bush-era officials were grabbing for all the executive branch power of which they could conceive?

I can't answer those questions for the people who have lifted out of the gutter McVeigh's old tyranny talk. And they can't answer the questions either, truth be told, for in the honest answering of them their charade and hypocrisy is bared for all the world to see. No, the only real "tyrants" in America today are the ones telling you what to think and believe; the ones telling you to believe them and not your own eyes; the ones who see their defenses breached, their ideas in retreat, and their principles challenged.

Fifteen years ago, the face of that frustration was McVeigh. Today, the face looks very much different indeed, don't you think?

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Andrew Cohen is a contributing editor at The Atlantic, 60 Minutes' first-ever legal analyst, and a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice. He is also chief analyst for CBS Radio News and has won a Murrow Award as one of the nation's leading legal journalists. More

Cohen is the winner of the American Bar Association’s 2012 Silver Gavel Award for his Atlantic commentary about the death penalty in America and the winner of the Humane Society’s 2012 Genesis Award for his coverage of the plight of America’s wild horses. A racehorse owner and breeder, Cohen also is a two-time winner of both the John Hervey and O’Brien Awards for distinguished commentary about horse racing.

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