In high school I was an idealistic and active participant in the local Methodist Youth Fellowship in my New Hampshire town of 6,000 souls. Concerned with growing drug use among teens, our Fellowship’s adult leader and his wife opened the door of their home 24/7 to any troubled youth who felt the need of conversation or just neutral territory. For the upstanding citizens of our community, he would only be willing to let “those people” into his home if he were a drug dealer. Our own minister convinced parents not to let their children attend Methodist Youth Fellowship meetings. The sergeant of our town’s police force told me that if I went to this leader’s house, “some day I would hear a crash and there would be a police officer coming through every window.”
This was the 60’s and adults were threatened by anyone wearing long hair or beads. They complained to the Board of Supervisors that they didn’t feel safe going downtown because of “undesirable” youth hanging out. The Supervisors passed an ordinance banning all people under 18 from the town common and any group of three or more from downtown. In protest, a group of high school students went to the common after school. In a scene out of “Alice’s Restaurant,” the police appeared, dressed in full riot gear recently purchased with a Federal Grant available because of all the threats the nation faced from anti-war protesters. The police got on their bullhorn and ordered the protesters to disperse. The scared teenagers scattered to the winds.
The last protestor was hunted down some three miles from downtown and hauled to jail. The charge was “failure to disperse”.
It was about this time that the National Guard was being called out against people saying what most people now believe to be true: the Vietnam War was a mistake. Four dead in Ohio.
I wonder what our government would justify doing if there were a real threat, say from terrorists, and they had the capability of unlimited access to our private lives?
One day my high school social studies teacher gave us an unusual lesson. The class was divided into teams. One team represented the leaders of a newly independent country. The remaining teams were to represent different forms of government. After giving us a week to research the hypothetical country and the different theories of government, a debate was held at which each team tried to convince the “leaders” to adopt their form of government.
I convinced them to adopt fascism.
It was easy.
At one point the team representing democracy got so frustrated with the obvious success of my arguments, they shouted out “but what if the leaders become corrupt?” I waved my hand at the leaders and responded, “Are you accusing these people of being corrupt?” The deal was sealed.
In fact, the team representing democracy had the most difficult argument to make. Democracy is messy, provides no tangible benefits and offers protections against only hypothetic harms. No practical leader would choose democracy. Belief in democracy requires idealism and a willingness to stick with those ideals even in situations where it seems against your best interest.
In 1776, fifty-six people had the courage to sign a confession of treason in support of those ideals. A confession which ends “for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.” I’m talking, of course, of the Declaration of Independence. Today we are almost unimaginably more powerful and safer than were those 56 gentlemen. Yet, how much risk are we willing to take for those ideals?