Over the weekend, men with automatic weapons seized a federal building in Oregon. Naturally they’re being called a militia instead of terrorists. No one is asking when or where they were radicalized. No one is demanding to know from where they got their guns.
It’s almost as if there’s something visibly different about them causing media, government, and society to proceed with patience instead of bullets, but that’s only idle speculation.
Partly that’s a function of target: by seizing a building in a national park, they ensured they’d be dealing with federal instead of local authorities. And those very authorities are following the rulebook derived after publicized disasters during stand-offs with right-wing groups during the nineties. If no one is in immediate danger, don’t give the thugs the attention they want. Let them sit and stew in the little national park building that offers both restrooms and a gift shop, and resolve the idiocy peaceably.
So what is their purported goal? There’s some mumbling about demanding the restoration of constitutional rights. Since they have guns and won’t shut up, we’ve already established that their first two amendments are in order, so I assume that they’re angry about the British soldiers living in the room above their garage as is expressly forbidden by the third amendment.
And why a random building in a national park? Says idiotic spokesperson whom I won’t name because he doesn’t deserve any publicity: “This refuge — it has been destructive to the people of the county and to the people of the area”.
Well shit, move over al-Qaeda, we’ve got some badasses here. Nothing says hardcore grievance like taking up arms over national parks getting larger. “Speak softly and carry a big stick” they would cheer without even knowing that was also the dude who signed into existence the national parks system in the first place.
So you wander on over to your news site of choice. Read an article. See the link at the bottom that says “View Comments”. There are literally more than 10,000 of them. Or a relative of yours whom you flinch at seeing at Thanksgiving shares a post on Facebook from a group with a name like “Americans For Vague Positive Concept” and you wince at the “14.7K comments” below the assurance that he likes it.
Don’t read the comments.
Never read the comments.
Seriously, do not click the comments button.
And your finger itches and eventually caves because your right index finger hates you ever so much. And you die a little inside as a wash of vitriol and hatred bursts forth onto your screen like a medieval sewer during a hundred-year storm. I won’t bother even mocking them; you know what they say. You knew before you even clicked. You didn’t click to learn, you clicked to confirm. You clicked because you wanted to indulge your cynicism and savor the burn like a cheap whiskey.
But that depressive surge you feel is mirrored by the surge of belonging and elation felt by the militia and those like them who are reading those same comments. Forty years ago if a small group of armed yokels seized a building at a national park, they’d have been a footnote in the local papers. The world wouldn’t have seen it or cared.
For that same reason, forty years ago, they wouldn’t have bothered doing this in the first place. Because the prerequisite for this action is blatant in every statement they make about their support and the people rising with them. It requires believing that you are part of a larger group of people who agree with you.
This is what the Internet gives us, both a blessing and a curse.
If you were part of a small ostracized minority generations ago, you were fundamentally alone. Whether it was because you were gay, communist, hated national parks, or had very special feelings for certain fruits and vegetables, being different made you alone. You couldn’t talk to others for fear, you couldn’t find those like you, and so you lived in silence.
#Blacklivesmatter happened the way it did because a thousand small groups realized that their experiences were not unique and that they weren’t alone. #Itgetsbetter and the previously unimaginable progress in LGBT rights of the last twenty years are a direct product of the same phenomenon: small groups of people were suddenly members of a community instead of isolated and vulnerable individuals. The Internet makes the world tiny in the best possible way: it ensures that no one, no matter how rare their beliefs or attributes, can find other people in the world with the same shared experiences.
And some of those groups are going to be violent idiots, because that’s just people. A fundamental rule of humanity is that you can find 5% of people to support anything. According to polls, 5% of people living in Hawaii say they have never been to Hawaii.
It’s easy to look at ten thousand comments applauding a half dozen morons as a symptom of a disease. And it can be. But it’s also an inevitable side effect of one of the greatest goods we have ever realized. It might be horrifying that those men are there because they are not alone, but that’s implicit in a technology that has ensured that none of us has to be alone again.
Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods.