How Tolerant Should Democracies Be?

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Limits to tolerance? photo: code poet/Jim/flickr

Since US President Obama was elected, the far right has embraced radical fringe movements that do little to hide their desire to expound revolution in the US. A recent article, Oath Keepers and the Age of Treason has brought attention to the activities of armed militia groups in the US.

Militias have always been part of the American landscape, well before the American Revolution, where they played a decisive role in the US gaining its independence. Contemporary militia movements like the Oath Keepers regularly draw on this association as a source of legitimacy (as the “true keepers of liberty”) and as a justification for their rejection of the federal government in general and the Obama administration in particular.

What is striking is that these armed militias are confident enough to publicly describe their recruitment, training and mobilization activities and to express their hostile intentions toward the US government. In fact, it is in the realm of public activities that the perception and tolerance of these groups is a change from the past. Oath Keepers receive local support from the Tea Party-movement, which, in turn, enjoys support at the national level from state governors, congressmen and senators, as well as regular coverage by the mainstream media.

This is a telling reflection of the political imbalance in the US. While ordinary citizens protesting the war in Iraq were allegedly investigated and harassed by the police and the CIA, right-wing armed militia groups (made up of former military and policemen) can verbally attack the president, the federal government, and call for rebellion; all with the implicit (and in some cases explicit) support of public figures and political leaders. Analysts who dismiss the contradiction as “just national politics” or as the far right’s “desperate” search for voter support in populist movements may be underestimating the depth of the political divide in America.

The real question is how would (or should) any democratic government respond to open saber-rattling from armed citizens on its territory? While there is a lot of sense in governments simply ignoring these groups, doing so doesn’t make the groups or the movement go away. Yet, given that in the US supporters of these movements are also servicemen and women in the branches of the military or law enforcement, if the government were to act against a radical militia in a hastily planned and poorly executed operation, events could rapidly degenerate. This was the case in the Branch Davidians siege of 1993 in Waco, Texas.

The Italian philosopher, Norberto Bobbio, warned that the greatest threat to democracy is it’s tendency to tolerate the presence of undemocratic groups that are actively seeking to dismantle it.  Bobbio suggested that democracies can only survive by not tolerating activities that undermine it’s foundations.

But how far should democracies go in defining and containing activities deemed a threat? The suspension of basic rights in a crisis? Extensive wiretapping and video monitoring of ordinary citizens in the name of security? Or, by selectively ejecting or detaining those deemed a threat, as in the case of the radical Muslim cleric Abu Qatada in the UK.

Democratic societies have a responsibility to protect the social contract. The responsibility lies with the individuals that live in the country, as well as its organizations and institutions. Recent events and current trends demonstrate that there is a need to intensify the public discourse on the responsibilities and limits of democracy; soon, before an ugly domestic crisis erupts.

One reply on “How Tolerant Should Democracies Be?”

See also the new report by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) on the surge in the number of “patriot” groups and militias in the US over the past year.

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