I was sitting around Sunday night with the family and some friends enjoying a meal when an anonymous caller rang my cell phone. I answered and a man asked, "Are you Josh Horwitz?" I said yes and he explained that he is a supporter of Jews for the Preservation of Firearms Ownership (a radical gun-rights group). He then went on to say that with a name like Horwitz I must be Jewish, and he expressed dismay that any Jew could be working for gun control, which he deemed a "Nazi agenda." At which point I hung up.
This is not the first time that an accusation of Nazism has been thrown my way, and unfortunately such irresponsible aspersions occur all too often these days. I am in a rough business, and I understand that. But the events of the last two weeks have got me (and apparently many others) thinking about how the seeds of violence, planted by the insurrectionary right, are starting to birth a movement of thuggery that in some ways mimic the rise of the National Socialists in Weimar-era Germany.
First, private security guards hired by U.S. Senate candidate Joe Miller arrested an Alaska Dispatch reporter after a public event in an Anchorage school on Oct. 17. When local police arrived, they were told that Tony Hopfinger had been arrested for "trespassing" at the town hall meeting. They immediately removed handcuffs that had been placed on Hopfinger and no charges were filed. It was soon revealed that the security team who arrested Hopfinger was led by William Fulton, the head of DropZone Security and the "Supply Sergeant" of the Alaska Citizens Militia. Fulton hosts meetings of the militia at his army surplus store and reportedly told its members that -- following a predicted full-scale economic collapse of the country -- "If I see someone walking up in my area in camouflage, I'm gonna' put a bullet in their head." The Alaska Citizens Militia is commanded by Norm Olson, who has been described by the Southern Poverty Law Center as "a radical among radicals."
The second event occurred three nights ago, when two Rand Paul supporters attacked a MoveOn.org volunteer at a rally for the U.S. Senate candidate in Lexington, Kentucky. Mike Pezzano, an organizer with Kentucky Open Carry tackled Lauren Valle, 23, and threw her to the ground, pinning her head against the curb. Another man, Tim Profitt, then stomped on her head. At the website ResistNet, Pezzano states that he is concerned about the following issues: "Illegal Alien Amnesty," "Globalism," "Socialism," "Climate Alarmism," "Gun Control" and "Social Liberalism."
These were not "isolated incidents." The last two years have seen a great deal of political violence perpetrated by persons with strong ties to private militias and other far-right wing organizations. This week I couldn't help but recall the former leader of the Alabama Constitutional Militia, Mike Vanderboegh, instructing his followers to throw bricks through the windows of Democratic offices during the consideration of health-care-reform legislation in the House of Representatives in March. "If we break the windows of hundreds, thousands, of Democratic party headquarters across this country," he told them, "we might just wake up enough of them to make defending ourselves at the muzzle of a rifle unnecessary." Vandals responded by attacking Democratic offices in Pleasant Ridge, Ohio; Wichita, Kansas; Tuscon, Arizona; Niagara Falls, New York; and Rochester, New York.
There's no small irony in the fact that extreme gun-rights activists that are in league with the likes of Vanderboegh, Pezzano and Fulton are also the first to claim that gun-control laws are part of a "Nazi agenda." But just because they say it over and over again does not make it the truth. Research has shown that Hitler actually relaxed German gun laws and made it easier for average Germans to obtain firearms, a fact that gun-happy Neo-Nazi websites have repeated with glee. If you want a little tamer but more scholarly discussion you can read Professor Bernard Harcourt's article in the Fordham Law Review. Harcourt makes the important point that "the history of general gun control in Germany from the post-World War I period to the inception of World War II seems to be, in general, a history of declining, rather than increasing, gun control." The notion that more access to firearms was all the German citizenry needed to prevent Hitler's tyranny is ridiculous. Average Germans had access to firearms, but no inclination to use them to challenge the rise of the Nazi party. It is true that Jews were forcibly disarmed (of all weapons, not just guns), but as a tiny minority in a very large country, armed resistance would have been justified but not determinative.
When one looks at how the Nazis actually accumulated power some of the parallels with the violence we are seeing today in the United States are quite disturbing. Although the common narrative has Hitler winning a major election based on the strength of his propaganda and taking over a modern democracy, the truth is that without the SA (the Nazis' private militia) relentlessly suppressing rival political parties, Hitler would have been relegated to obscurity. The tactics employed by the SA before Hitler was part of the government included voter intimidation, beating and killing political opponents, and destroying rival parties' infrastructure. In fact, prior to becoming chancellor, Hitler had more men under arms than the German military!
As I describe in my book, Guns, Democracy and the Insurrectionist Idea (co-authored with Casey Anderson):
The SA used violence to quell dissent at Nazi rallies as well to disrupt opponents. Any event planned by the social democrats or other left-wing party became an opportunity for SA intimidation. In 1931 and 1932, the SA destroyed opposition newspapers and political headquarters and in some instances even killed opponents. Political violence spread across Germany. Brawls and street violence became common.
Hitler did not come to power overnight -- he started his rise by using political violence and the force of privately held arms to liquidate his opponents. Once a state allows private militias to subvert the democratic process, laws -- and the rule of law itself -- become irrelevant.
Now, 80 years later in our modern democracy, we are seeing private militia goons beating up protesters, vandalizing the property of political opponents, and detaining reporters. No wonder Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson recently tweeted, "'Fascist' is overused/misused word but tell me how to describe political impulse to stomp on defenseless woman's head."
There is still a long way to go before the mainstream right in this country devolves into fascism. One thing is for sure though -- political violence is the tool of aspiring dictators the world over and it is undeniable that in this election cycle political violence has been used as a tool to suppress opposition views. This type of anti-democratic thuggery -- as opposed to sensible regulation of firearms -- could one day place us on the slippery slope toward tyranny as the political institutions we cherish most are gradually eroded.
It is incumbent upon all of our elected leaders -- but especially for high-profile leaders on the right wing like Sarah Palin, John Boehner and Kentucky's own Mitch McConnell -- to condemn this behavior as anathema to the democratic process and the individual freedoms that we enjoy as Americans.