Looking at these images, my reaction is not fear but its opposite: an overwhelming sense of the protesters’ impotence. That they carried guns suggests they were less than confident in the manifest justice of their cause or the seriousness of their passion, which they needed to amplify. It also indicates a kind of desperation and ignorance—they either don’t know about the tradition and practice of civic protest, or decided to largely abandon it. In any case, they could not have reasonably expected a democratic response to their show of force.
The governor could not submit to their demands—though President Donald Trump urged otherwise, and called the protesters “good people,” despite their intimidation (and assorted racist paraphernalia): To negotiate with these demonstrators would set an awful precedent. It would suggest that anyone can make public-policy demands at the end of a gun barrel—though the point of democracy is precisely to dispense with violence in policy negotiations. In that respect, many were right to dub the armed protesters “terrorists.” Though they might object to the title, the protesters certainly seemed to relish the intimidation they caused—they wanted to issue a threat of violence, and, indeed, armed insurrection.
The protesters complained of government tyranny—as they saw it, the governor was making univocal decisions contrary to the public interest. But real tyrants do not tolerate protest, much less armed protest. Under real tyranny, you don’t march around with your assault rifles, yelling into policemen’s faces. That is a death wish—the height of stupidity.
Joshua Feinzig and Joshua Zoffer: A constitutional case for gun control
Under real tyranny, you don’t reveal your weapons at all—and you don’t identify yourself as a threat. A real tyrant will dispatch armed threats out of hand. That the protesters were so brazen suggests they knew full well that they live in no tyranny. They were respected, and left unharmed, because we have the rule of law. Put otherwise: These men could angrily shake their weapons in the air, and play the role of armed insurrectionists—costumes and all—because their government actually protects them.
This is the great irony, of course—that these men are enjoying a surfeit of justice, though they refuse to recognize it. It is impossible to imagine people of a different skin color angrily marching with military-style weapons and being treated with similar generosity by law enforcement. As Representative Rashida Tlaib noted on Twitter, “Black people get executed by police for just existing, while white people dressed like militia members carrying assault weapons are allowed to threaten State Legislators and staff.”
Unfortunately, while these armed protesters benefited from the rule of law, they unwittingly undermined it. For their demonstration certainly looked lawless—or made the rule of law seem absent, or tenuous at best. Rule of law is largely a matter of faith, and it requires the broader population to buy in. When some do not, or when some doubt that the rule of law still pertains, and they act as if it did not, this risks undermining it for everyone else—who then gird themselves for looming chaos.