A man crashed his small plane on Feb. 18 into an Austin, Texas, building where employees of the Internal Revenue Service worked, killing or wounding a dozen people. It reminded a lot of people of similar crashes in New York City and Washington, D.C., eight years ago.
This pilot also chose his site for maximum symbolic value and was willing to die for his cause in the hope of waking up the “American zombies” to the fact that “violence not only is the answer, it is the only answer” to a government that does not listen to them.
When I checked Facebook recently after coming back to Austin from Baylor, an Austin friend, knowing that some of us might work for the government, had put out a plaintive call for folks to check in: “Are we all okay?”
Perhaps coincidentally, I drove to Waco on Feb. 18 behind a man with a Tea Party sticker on his monster truck that talked about taking back the government, and – irrationally, I know – the rifle in his gun rack made me a little nervous.
I know that there is a lot of anger out there about taxes, health care, immigration policies and a whole lot of other stuff. Believe it or not, I have been known to feel things ranging from exasperation to anger about our country and the way it is led – or not led. But when we come to the point of killing ourselves or employees of our government, I think it’s way past time that we looked at what government is and does and recognize this fact:
Our government is us.
I know we like to think it’s a group of hard-hearted bureaucrats with jobs for life, representatives who can’t be bothered with issues that really matter to us, or a mayor, governor or president we can’t stand. That’s only a perception.
Our government is us.
It’s people like you or me: someone you know from church works for the IRS; my best friend from high school works for the FAA. Most of us know someone or a friend of someone serving our nation in Iraq or Afghanistan. We call those who work for our government “civil servants” for a reason; they work for us.
But when we hear the word “government” used with venom, it’s as though we are discussing some enemy, some monolithic force that only exists to do us harm. Certainly this suicide bomber felt he had no recourse except to give his life as a protest against his government.
But in truth, our government is populated by people that we elect or employ, people who are drawn from our own ranks. They aren’t some mythical “other” we should hate and scorn; our government is not run by, say, the French.
But when people say, as they have said for decades, that “government is the problem,” we are making it seem as though by getting rid of government, we will be better off. This is patently untrue.
Making allowance for human imperfection – and bad policies – still it’s true that the government tries to protect us from terrorists, dangerous workplaces, toxins in our foods, substandard schools, potholes. Government, as Miss Molly Ivins used to say, is not an enemy; it’s a tool. And you can use this tool for good things or for bad things.
I am willing to grant that the suicide pilot had bad experiences with the IRS, as perhaps most people have who have been audited or had their wages garnished. Perhaps you’ve run afoul of a national, state or local agency. Maybe you recently got pulled over by a small-town cop. Maybe you’re mad at our president.
But now, in this time of taxes and tea parties, I think we’re called to acknowledge that the government is us, and that we do need it.
If you say you don’t want to pay taxes or so many taxes (our tax load is actually quite low compared to many nations who receive more services from their governments), then at least be honest about what you want government to do.
Maybe you want to be left entirely to your own devices, to never receive any services, but I doubt it. Don’t say that you don’t want the government to interfere with your life; don’t say you don’t want big government; don’t say you don’t want a massive bureaucracy working for you.
Because when you personally need your government, however angry you may be with it, you will want it to be there.
Putting aside every other example, if your town is hit by a tornado – or earthquake or flood or hurricane – you’re going to want government. And you’re going to complain, in fact, if it is slow in rescuing you, in pulling your neighbors from beneath their houses, in setting up shelters and bringing in potable water. Because you understand that a government exists to take care of its citizens.
Those who argue that churches and charities can do the jobs we associate with government are kidding themselves. Churches and charities don’t have the same resources or the same powers.
The Southern Baptist Convention won’t stop China from importing powdered milk with melamine in it. The Red Cross won’t check the Hudson River (or the Mississippi River, the Columbia River or the South Canadian River) for pollutants. The Catholic Church can’t mandate safe vehicles or screen air passengers for underwear bombs.
If you’re upset about government policies, then by all means, do something about it – peacefully. Protest. Organize. Contribute. Run for office. In full recognition that not everyone agrees with you, but that if enough do, things can change.
So although crowds of angry people frankly scare me, if tea parties lead to positive change, to a government more responsive to its people and less responsive to monied interests, then hooray.
But if their rhetoric leads to more people willing to kill themselves and others because of their belief that their government, made up of their fellow citizens, is the enemy, then shame on them.
Greg Garrett is professor of English at Baylor University in Waco, Texas. He blogs at The Other Jesus.