Project Fortress: Time to Rally Around the Rule of Law
A gunman tries to shoot his way into the FBI building in Cincinnati. A would-be assassin armed with a handgun, a knife, and zip ties attempts to abduct and murder a Supreme Court justice. A mob lays siege to Congress and hunts for the vice president. Another mob surrounds and assaults the federal courthouse in Oakland, then murders a federal law-enforcement officer. Anarchists seize and occupy a large swath of Seattle, threaten the White House, wound 60 Secret Service officers, torch police stations, and try to burn down federal buildings in Portland and Las Vegas. Vigilante arsonists, gunmen and vandals attack crisis pregnancy centers that oppose abortion and clinics that provide abortions. An armed group tries to kidnap the governor of Michigan. Another threatens to dismember a U.S. senator and her staff. The home of a congresswoman is surveilled by a man armed with a semiautomatic weapon. A middle-aged man rams his car into a teenage boy—killing the boy—over what the man describes as a political argument. A man tries to stab a member of Congress during a campaign rally. A gunman fires 70 rounds into a gathering of members of Congress.
All of these acts of political violence occurred in the past five years; most of them the past two years; some of them last year. And all of these attacks were carried out by Americans—some by an increasingly anarchist far-left, some by an increasingly authoritarian far-right.
“The law itself—the principle of law, the authority of law—is sorely tested and feels as if it is being broken,” Lance Morrow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center writes.
That phrase “being broken” is the one that strikes a nerve. The authority of law, the rule of law, the institutions of law are not broken—at least not yet—but in the shadow of all that political violence, they clearly are not whole or healthy. Just as erosion, falling rains, rising floodwaters and years of neglect can wear away at a once-sturdy bridge, we are watching a confluence of destructive forces wear away at the authority of law, the rule of law, the institutions of law.
Amidst the chaos, too many of those we entrust to make and enforce the law seem to rationalize—even encourage—the sort of violence that’s directed squarely at the rule of law and the institutions of law. The examples abound.
- Thousands of people descended on Congress in January 2021. Most of them came to protest the results of the 2020 election. But some of them came with the goal of preventing Congress from fulfilling its constitutional duty. Some of them chanted “Hang Mike Pence.” Some of them built a makeshift gallows within eyeshot of the Capitol. Some of them attacked police. Some of them engaged in a conspiracy to overthrow the government (their words of admission, not mine of accusation). And the president shrugged.
- Hundreds of people descended on the homes of Supreme Court justices in May 2022, with the goal of intimidating officers of the court into altering their votes (such intimidation is a violation of the law). And the president shrugged.
- There were 9,625 threats against members of Congress in 2021—a tenfold increase over 2016.
- A senator openly threatened members of the High Court by howling, “You have released the whirlwind, and you will pay the price…you won’t know what hit you.” And the Senate failed to censure him or order him to explain what he meant by “pay the price.” After all, a Supreme Court justice cannot pay a political, financial, or criminal price for his or her rulings.
- A member of the House called for physical harassment and intimidation of Americans simply because they worked for the president. And again, there was no sanction from the House, no summoning of the member to the well.
- In 2020, left-wing lawmakers chanted a mindless “defund the police” mantra. In 2022, right-wing lawmakers chanted a mindless “defund the FBI” mantra. Prosecutors refuse to prosecute people who have broken the law—thus jeopardizing law-abiding citizens, usurping the role of lawmakers, multiplying the risks confronting law-enforcement officers, and making a mockery of the rule of law. Candidates for elective office have called on Americans to shoot federal agents. And both extremes wonder why the thin blue line that protects us from chaos is growing thinner by the day.
- Left-wing anarchist mobs rampaged through America’s cities in the summer of 2020. They occupied neighborhoods; they ransacked and looted businesses; they assaulted police. In their wake, they left 25 Americans dead and more than $1 billion in property damage.
- Right-wing authoritarian mobs rampaged through America’s Capitol in the winter of 2021. They occupied the Senate chamber; they ransacked and looted congressional offices; they assaulted police. Federal prosecutors charge that spearhead elements of the January 6 assault “concocted a plan for armed rebellion,” took up arms against the U.S. government, trained with “weapons of war” and prepositioned those weapons outside Washington. In their wake, they deformed how our children, our allies and our enemies view our country.
I don’t know if it’s comforting or troubling that America has been here before—that we’ve endured even worse political violence.
For instance, the nation was scarred by political violence in the years immediately following America’s founding: The Shays Rebellion (1786-87) and Whiskey Rebellion (1794) saw armed gangs block county courts from convening, armed attacks against tax officers, the destruction of government facilities, arson, the abduction of government officials and an attempt by militia groups to move against Pittsburgh.
The Civil War, of course, marked the bloodiest political violence America has ever known—erasing 364,511 Union soldiers and 133,821 Confederate soldiers. Some Americans—both on the anarchist far-left and the authoritarian far-right—seem to welcome a return to that hell.
Anarchist political violence plagued America during the early decades of the 1900s. The awful crescendo of that first wave of American anarchism was the assassination of President McKinley in 1901.
In the 1950s, Puerto Rican nationalists sprayed bullets onto the House floor, wounding five members of Congress. That same decade saw recalcitrant governors and mayors use the power of the state as a tool of political violence—brutalizing and terrorizing black Americans.
In the span of 63 days in 1968, Rev. Martin Luther King and Sen. Robert Kennedy—two towering political figures who promoted a message of equality and dignity, peace and justice—were murdered. The riots that followed King’s assassination spread to 100 cities and left 39 dead.
In 1969 and 1970, America weathered more than 4,000 bombings, resulting in 43 deaths.
Yet our history also reminds us that political violence—even though it may flare from time to time—is not tolerated by the vast majority of the American people. We have always found a pathway back to law and order—a way to bridge the chasm that divides us.
We Americans have no common race, religion, creed or color connecting us; we have only the Constitution, the rule of law, the institutions of law. This is what connects our cities and farms and suburbs, Main Street and Wall Street, red states and blue states, black and white, red, brown and yellow, old and young, devout and doubting, conservative and liberal, newly minted Americans and natural-born citizens, Democrats and Republicans, Independents and None-of-the-Aboves, Federalists and Anti-Federalists. This is the bridge we must strengthen and shore up.
What does strengthening the rule of law and the institutions of law look like in practice? Those who make our laws, enforce and execute our laws, interpret our laws, and live under our laws—that would encompass all of us—must measure our actions, choices, decisions and policies against the standard set by the Constitution: Are we promoting or preventing justice; encouraging or undermining domestic tranquility (and civility); reinforcing or weakening the general welfare (the common good); ensuring or jeopardizing the common defense; enabling or denying the blessings of liberty; fueling or impeding the pursuit of happiness; supporting or infringing on religious liberty, free speech, the freedom to peaceably assemble?
There will always be differences of interpretation, of opinion, of definition—one citizen’s liberty can impact another’s tranquility—but the only way to resolve such differences is through the institutions of law, the rule of law, the Constitution. Not bombings or shootings or other forms of political violence. Not mobs or riots. Not insurrection or sedition. Not authoritarianism or anarchy.
As Ben Sasse, who recently retired from the Senate, observes, “A continental nation of 330 million souls couldn’t possibly agree on everything, but we can hash out our disagreements in the communities where we live and the institutions we build.”
Smashing through windows and doors, assaulting police, and preventing Congress from fulfilling its constitutional duty is by definition not “political discourse”—no matter what unthinking politicians or sympathetic media claim. And any protest that involves violence or the destruction of property is by definition not “peaceful”—no matter how many times sympathetic media outlets and unthinking commentators attach the qualifier “mostly” to the word “peaceful.”
When we encounter those on the anarchist left who see the rule of law as an obstacle to their notion of progress or those on the authoritarian right who see a person or a group as above the rule of law, we must use the institutions of law to expose them—and when necessary, to impose just punishments upon them. For if we fail to confront these enemies of the rule of law, they will destroy the one thing that truly holds together what we call the United States.
Alan W. Dowd leads the Sagamore Institute Center for America’s Purpose and the Project Fortress initiative.