With each passing moment, the nation grows more polarized as Washington's partisan bickering becomes ever more combative. Nowhere is this more evident than with the health care debate. It has become a touchstone for discontent over the Obama administration's aggressive attempts to push through health care reform, the government's out-of-control spending, the loss of civil liberties and the fact that government leaders are not listening. Understandably, many Americans are very frustrated.
This frustration has spawned lively -- and often angry -- protests at town hall meetings across the country, marked by Americans wielding protest signs and demanding to be heard. According to the Associated Press, "Many of those raising their voices and fists at the [health care] town halls have never been politically active."
Although this is a healthy sign of democracy in action, critics have denounced the protesters for their disruptive behavior and likened them to angry mobs. However, the First Amendment does not require civility -- merely free speech, and whether we like it or not, yelling and offensive signs are part of that.
What is not healthy and is, in fact, downright stupid are the handfuls of protesters who have recently taken to carrying guns along with them to these free speech rallies. For example, one man showed up at a rally in Portsmouth, N.H., with a protest sign and a loaded handgun strapped to his thigh. In Phoenix, Ariz., about a dozen people brought guns to a health-care rally. One man actually had an AR-15 assault rifle slung over his shoulder. When asked why he had guns with him, the man reportedly responded, "Because I can do it. In Arizona, I still have some freedoms left."
Free speech and the right to bear arms are protected by the United States Constitution. But bringing a loaded gun to a free speech rally is not a wise or prudent exercise of one's Second Amendment right to bear arms. All it will do is endanger innocent lives and discredit these kinds of activist movements. For instance, while these gun-toting protesters may be few in number, they are already being identified with the protest movement as a whole.
Here's the bottom line: there are basically only two reasons for carrying a gun in America -- to protect yourself or to go hunting. But there is no valid reason for carrying a gun to these town hall meetings. It will only increase the police presence. And as I've said many times before, there is no way the average citizen armed with a gun can challenge the modern police officer who is armed to the teeth with even bigger guns, assault vehicles, battering rams, ballistic shields, "flashbang" grenades, smoke grenades, pepper spray and tear gas, to name just some of local law enforcement's arsenal. The average citizen simply has no defense against that kind of weaponry. And it would be foolish to think otherwise.
However, this does not mean that we, as citizens, are powerless. Our power rests in our ability to protest and foment change. As the Associated Press recently reported, "The emerging protest movement is almost the mirror image of the grass-roots campaign that helped sweep Obama into office by pulling in people who'd never been politically active. This time Obama is seeing the other side of what can happen when people are motivated, connect over the Internet and seemingly reach a tipping point that turns them from onlookers into activists."
Our power also rests in our ability to speak truth to power -- even shout truth to power. People have a right to shout. And they have a right to be extremist in their speech. As despicable as it seems, they have a right to carry a sign that says "Death to Obama" if they disagree with him. To maintain our free speech rights in general, we have to protect these forms of extremist speech as well.
Martin Luther King Jr. is a case in point. Although he advocated nonviolent change, King was often labeled an extremist. To many Americans, King's arguments and protests for equality were seen as threatening. Thus, calling someone extremist is a relative value. It depends on who's doing the labeling.
This brings me back to the gun-toting protesters at the health care rallies. It's time for cooler heads to prevail. The frustration level in this country is already at an all-time high. All it will take is one stupid, violent act for these town halls to be closed down by the government. And that will mean the destruction of free speech. That's why the gun-toting has to stop.
We certainly don't want a handful of foolish people to destroy something that up to this point has been very healthy for our democracy. After all, the democratic process works best when critical discourse is allowed. That's why the First Amendment is so important. It works as a steam valve, allowing radicals to blow off steam and air their views. This facilitates against radicals going underground and becoming terrorists.
Democracy can only survive by active participation of its citizenry. Lest we forget, the Constitution opens with those three beautiful words "we the people," and we must do all we can to protect the rights of "we the people" to express themselves freely. Thus, whether or not you agree with the behavior at these town hall meetings, at least these protesters have taken the time to turn their televisions off, step outside their houses and get active in the governmental process.