Know your limits.
by P. Orin Zack
John Davis, the northern California teacher taken into custody by the Department of Homeland Security while watching the state school board announce his suspension, glanced at the paper between his splayed hands. “That is correct, ma’am. I consider Thierry Vlandoc’s civics paper to be an excellent extrapolation of the founders’ intent to our current political situation.”
Someone shouted “Traitor!” from the back of the packed congressional hearing chamber. The news pool camera rotated, and the two DHS officers flanking Davis snapped to alert.
Congresswoman Melissa Simington, who chaired the committee that had managed to subpoena Davis from DHS custody, held up a hand to calm the room, and then shifted her attention to the source of the interruption. “Ordinarily, young man, I would ask to have you evicted for such an outburst. But it appears that, for once, it is entirely in order to include your perspective in the proceedings. So, if you don’t mind, please come forward and take a seat behind the witness table. Do pay attention, as I may want to swear you in later.”
Davis, twisted in his seat, watched nervously as the clean-cut young man approached, but then turned away when his scowl became unbearable. Looking up at his questioner, he found that the normally unflappable Nebraskan appeared to be intensely troubled.
“Now, then, Mr. Davis. Since it is abundantly clear that we’re dealing with an emotionally charged situation, I would like to review how it was that we have come to this.”
He nodded. “Of course. Where would you like me to start?”
“With the assignment that induced Mr. Vlandoc to submit the essay that cost you your job and has so inflamed the media these past few days.”
“As part of our Constitution Day exploration of whether that document should be treated as the civil equivalent of holy writ, or as a binding contract that must be constantly reinterpreted, I had asked my students to write a paper placing one of the issues facing the men who signed it in 1787 into present-day context.”
“This assignment…” Burt Hove, the Texas congressman to Simington’s right said languidly. “Did you specify what form it was to take? For example, had you requested an essay with references, as opposed to a piece of narrative fiction?”
“I left that to the student’s discretion. We had previously used hypothetical narratives to explore some of the issues that the founders debated during the Constitutional Convention. It was a way to add a visceral dimension to our discussion. Thierry chose to cast his issue in the form of speculative current-day fiction.”
Hove snorted. “I hardly consider the blatant call for a revolt from within the armed services an acceptable form of self-expression, even if it is done in the guise of a homework assignment. Using a minor to express a sentiment that is clearly in violation of the law is no more honorable than using a child to transport illegal drugs!”
Davis leaned forward and locked eyes with the congressman. “And yet you don’t find a problem with manipulating minors with taxpayer-funded propaganda and invasive school visits into enlisting with the military so that they can be sent to kill? Your party made certain that students do not have rights, so that they cannot protest, and then the military voids their rights for the duration of their enlistment, which can now be extended indefinitely. I see no difference between that, and selling a child into slavery, which is another issue that the founders struggled with. Some of them, anyway.”
Simington raised a finger toward Hove and quietly told him to wait his turn to speak. Then she turned her attention back to Davis. “I apologize for my colleague’s outburst. But since he has brought it up, I do want to ask about the scenario that your student sketched out. A lot of heated debate has filled the airwaves and the Internet about the issue that Mr. Vlandoc attempted to address. What is your understanding about the purpose behind the mass desertion he advocated?”
A dozen electronic shutters caught the play of expressions across Davis’ face as he prepared to speak. The line of photographers on the floor in front of the dais tensed in expectation, ready to catch the day’s money-shot.
“There are actually several aspects to it, but the one that I think was his centerpiece comes from the Declaration of Independence. He had been very interested in Jefferson’s assertion that our government derives its powers from the consent of the governed. In fact, the class had gotten sidetracked on this issue when Thierry asked what the citizens’ recourse would be if that consent was no longer given.”
“I don’t understand, Mr. Davis. What does that have to do with thousands of recruits going AWOL?”
Davis lifted his student’s paper. “This is a story, Congresswoman Simington. The events that Thierry described are there to make a point. But to take a piece of it out of context and ignore why it’s there is just as senseless as the press taking a phrase that you or I might say today out of its context and portray it as something other than what it is. He used that mass desertion as a way to set up a situation. That all of those fictional members of the army, navy, air force and marines went AWOL was not the point. What they did afterwards is the key to his paper. What they did was to converge on Washington, D.C., in the form of a ‘well-regulated militia’, to challenge all three branches of government for dereliction of their own duty. Thierry Vlandoc’s question to his reader is this: how do the citizens of this country redress a grievance so basic that it cannot be resolved through the channels offered within the system set up by our constitution?”
“That’s ridiculous,” Hove said, ignoring the chair’s direction.
“No, sir. It is not ridiculous. Not in light of how the citizens of this nation have had their assumed consent to be governed used to bludgeon them into submission. It is not ridiculous that the result of what may have been the best of intentions has turned the people of this nation against one another as a distraction to keep them from noticing that their rights to life, liberty and even the pursuit of happiness have been stripped from them.
“I agree with Thierry. He makes a critical point that has been ignored for far too long. The citizens of this nation have been convinced, against their own best interest, that the only people whose consent was needed to have the government that you are part of and that we pay taxes to were the people around when it was formed. But that’s not true. Consent is an ongoing thing. Every generation must make that choice, and if this government wants to abrogate that choice, then, as Jefferson also said, it is our obligation to scrap the government and start over. The man sitting behind me called me a traitor. Well, I for one prefer the company of the traitors to England who founded this nation, to the traitors of our own day who have lied and cheated their way into power, and are intent on destroying it for their own selfish interests.”
Davis shrunk back nervously when he realized what he’d just said. He laced his fingers over Thierry’s paper, and slowly lowered his gaze until the only thing he could see was the table.
Congresswoman Simington called for a brief recess to give everyone a chance to calm down. Several members of the press immediately left the room, cell phones in hand. Ten minutes later, she asked the man seated behind Davis, who identified himself as Robin Fellows, to stand and be sworn in. After he’d lowered his hand, Congressman Hove covered the chair’s mike and spoke with her quietly, leaving Fellows standing for an uncomfortably long time.
Although Davis couldn’t hear what they said, it was clear from their expressions that Hove was doing his best to intimidate the committee chair. When he’d finished, he folded his hands, and gazed past Davis at Fellows.
Simington peered at her colleague weakly for a few seconds, and then faced her witness. “Earlier in this hearing, Mr. Fellows, you called John Davis here a traitor. That is a serious charge.”
He smirked. “I’m not alone in that. Homeland Security has already suggested as much. And now that he’s so close, I’d be happy to do it again, right to his face.”
Davis fought the impulse to ball his fist.
“I appreciate your candor, but I am curious as to why you feel this way about a fellow citizen. Would you care to elaborate?”
“It’s very simple, really. Anyone advocating the violent overthrow of the government is a traitor. Envisioning it in fiction is a flimsy dodge. Encouraging others is conspiracy to treason. I don’t think there’s any need to go further than that.”
“I’m sorry to have to disappoint you,” she said sternly, “but we will have to go further than that.”
“Oh? Has the Supreme Court made some new ruling on what constitutes treason? Because the last I heard, all it took was an executive declaration. So if I were you, I’d be very careful about what I say. You never know who’s listening.”
Congresswoman Simington paled. Her head twitched ever so slightly towards Hove. She opened her mouth to exhale.
Davis swallowed hard. He’d heard almost those exact words from the DHS officer to his right before they’d entered the hearing room. Turning to see how Fellows’ statement had affected the people in the viewing rows, he found that most of the audience was glancing at one another nervously. It seemed that the chill running up his spine was not alone.
“That’s a very interesting statement, Mr. Fellows,” she said. “One might almost say that it constituted a threat.”
“There’s no ‘almost’ about it, congresswoman. But it’s not me who’s making that threat.”
“Is that to say that you speak for someone else?”
“I speak for a lot of people, including the chief executive.”
“Do you really? Then you won’t mind if the Sergeant-at-Arms holds you in custody while we find out a bit more about you.”
“You wouldn’t dare. Everyone knows that the congress is a toothless tiger. You make a lot of noise, but in the end you’re powerless.”
John Davis stopped glancing back and forth between them and angrily slapped his palm on the table. “May I speak, please?”
Simington glanced at Hove, and then nodded. “You have the floor.”
“Thank you. When I challenged my class to put themselves in the position that the founders of this nation were in a few hundred years go, I wasn’t asking them to imagine life before Edison. The idea wasn’t to step into the past, but into the shoes of ordinary people faced with the extraordinary challenge of standing up to the clearly superior power of the government and business interests that were determined to treat them as serfs, as subservient to what was then the most powerful national force on Earth. That is the position we must all learn to speak from if we are ever to regain the sense of individual sovereignty that infused Thomas Jefferson when he wrote, ‘We the People’ at the top of the Constitution.”
The teacher from California glanced at each member of the committee in turn, and then at the paper in front of him. “Thierry Vlandoc is more than just a good student. He is exactly the kind of person who would have thrown in with the conspirators who started our own Revolutionary War, the kind of person who is unafraid to look those in power directly in the eye and tell them, in as loud and as clear a voice as he can, that there are limits to that power, and then to back up those words with action.
“I have no doubt that the founders were faced with exactly the same kind of threats that were made by the man standing behind me, by the man to my right, and I suspect was just made to the chair of this committee by Congressman Hove.”
Hove glared at Davis, Simington smiled in breathless amusement, and a volley of shutter clicks fought to be heard over the anxious chatter filling the room.
“And that is precisely why my student’s paper was so important, why it is so important. Thierry Vlandoc did a masterful job of mapping the sense of outrage that the conspirators in Philadelphia must have felt, to the situation that we find ourselves in today. His focus was on the consent of the governed. Well, the vast majority of the citizens of this country no longer give that consent. Their problem, though, is that the stated means to do something about that, which was laid out in the second amendment, has been stripped from them.
“In Jefferson’s day, a well-regulated militia meant the concerted actions of individually armed members of the population to defend their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor. Being individually armed is no longer a choice for most people, and so, in my student’s vision, that task fell to the ordinary people who have been lured with lies and bribed with promises into taking up arms as part of the very government whose power was most definitely not derived from their consent. The soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines who have been sent abroad to perform the dirty work of invasion and occupation, making them act out the part of the very forces that this nation rebelled against.
“Thierry Vlandoc’s fictional militia, in individual collective action, abandoned a role that was as abhorrent to their sacred honor as it would have been to the founders, and converged on this city to confront those who have, willingly, or unwillingly, participated in the desecration of that honor. And if I lose my own liberty, or even my life, to expose the people of this country to that message, then I’m happy to say that the cost will have been worth it.”
Davis closed his eyes and sat back, spent. The room was very quiet for a moment, and then several pagers and cell phones sounded at once. Behind him, the door creaked open, and someone strode purposefully past him, towards the panel. He couldn’t make out what was said over the growing noise around him. He opened his eyes to the sight of a very surprised Congresswoman Simington, standing across the table from him.
“It’s happened, Mr. Davis. There’s been a mass desertion. And word is, they’re headed here.”
Copyright 2008 by P. Orin Zack