In an obscure but important footnote to the first volume of the Gulag Archipelago, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn wonders what would have become of the Soviet terror if the citizens of Russia had armed themselves with hammers, axes, pokers—anything—so that arresting officers of the NKVD would have had to worry whether they would survive each night. The most powerful tyranny in the world could not have stood up against such action. Instead, tens of millions of Russians submitted meekly to the state, one by one. Why?
The same question came up in my elementary school unit on the Holocaust—why did the Jews get onto the trains? Did they fail to understand what was in store for them? In my childhood mind, I tried to unravel questions that seemed as bitter as the fact of the Holocaust itself: Why was there no effective resistance? Was submission so ingrained in these people, or individual courage so lacking?
The answer in both cases is that it was not courage that was lacking, but organization. This concept glimmers through Solzhenitsyn’s description like a fleck of gold in the pebbly shallows of a stream: He imagines a group of neighbors, a half-dozen perhaps, lying in ambush downstairs for the secret policemen. He specifies a group of neighbors. He specifies collective action. One courageous man resisting alone is a suicide. But one courageous man leading a few of his friends can put up a fight.
The wording of our Second Amendment—or, rather, the placement of a single comma—has engendered a raging debate that reached the Supreme Court and persists to this day: Is the second clause of this all-important sentence operative, or dependent? Is the right to bear arms absolute, or does it exist only because of the need for a militia?
The anti-gun lobby believes that, if they could demonstrate that the right to bear arms depends on a well-regulated militia, they could chuck the whole thing in the trashcan—because the need for a militia is clearly outdated and archaic.
And the pro-gun lobby has aquissed without giving it much thought: They hang their entire argument on the contention that the right to bear arms should remain, even if militias are no longer important in everyday life.
No one stops to ask: What makes us think we no longer need a well-regulated militia?
Regulated, in this context, means orderly or well-trained, rather than regulated in the red-tape sense we might think of today. It refers to the group of all able-bodied men in every town in America: Each man is responsible for maintaining a serviceable weapon, plus powder and lead. These men turn out once a week on the town green for basic drill under a captain and lieutenants of their own election. How did this idea fall out of fashion?
The long and the short of it is we’ve had to fight many serious wars. Each war necessitated a large professional army—as George Washington anticipated. And, after each war, the army wanted to stick around in its new enlarged state, and the government allowed it to remain, gradually eating up the prerogatives of the local militia.
We know the intention of the founding fathers in this respect: Washington explained in so many words that the militia was supposed to be the main standing force for domestic security, strong enough at least to hold out in any war until a professional army could be brought up to speed. Such was the distrust of a standing army, as a concept opposed to individual liberty, that, as soon as the Revolutionary War ended, the Continental Army was disbanded in its entirety.
James Madison warned us exactly how this would go in his “Political Observations,” and is worth quoting at length:
Of all the enemies to public liberty, war is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded, because it comprises and develops the germ of every other. War is the parent of armies; from these proceed debts and taxes; and armies, and debts, and taxes are the known instruments for bringing the many under the domination of the few. In war, too, the discretionary power of the Executive is extended; its influence in dealing out offices, honors, and emoluments is multiplied; and all the means of seducing the minds are added to those of subduing the force of the people.
This is by no means an attack on the professional army we maintain today—though we on the Right are perhaps too prone to confuse our respect for the men who do the fighting with respect for the institution. The point is that we are using our professional army as an excuse to forget that our security, our individual liberty, and our freedom of action are our own responsibility. The government does a poor job of protecting what it was never designed to protect in the first place.
The local militia, not our state or federal government, was supposed to protect all liberties, just as the tall grass protects the dunes. Once a citizen and his neighbors abandon their important duties as custodians of regular life, handing it over to paid substitutes who acquire new power and authority in the process, the erosion of liberty follows. The wind and the waves are relentless; the sand gets carried away by the handful.
This is how we arrived at the present day, where the very idea of the local men meeting once a week to drill with their guns would seem like dangerous lunacy to half the country—and like subversive lunacy to our gigantic, all-seeing, all-controlling federal government. It is, of course, difficult to reclaim responsibilities, once given away. The flip side of any responsibility is a quotient of power, and nobody gives up power willingly.
But let us suppose that Americans decided to revive this institution in towns and cities across the country. It might start by having an informal weekend get-together. The men would choose a captain, who would serve for a limited time and then be barred from running for the position again for a few years. Each man would take the phone numbers and addresses of three to four men in the group, and would give his own contact information to three to four others. This way a message could originate from any point in the group and be distributed quickly; there would be no single point of failure, and no one would be in possession of the entire list of members. The captain would likewise exchange information with the captains of neighboring towns.
The group would meet once a week for an hour’s drill. No highfalutin pseudo-special-ops training would be necessary—or permitted. The men would simply learn how to move together effectively. The idea is simple: That, at a moment of distress, the many will come to the aid of the few. A call for help broadcast to the local network will bring an immediate, local response. A town in distress can call up help from sister towns—as happened one April morning in 1775. Neighbors will be ready—and will have practice—coming to the aid of their neighbors.
It may seem ridiculous or paranoid, or simply unnecessary, to revive such an institution in a free society. But only a free society could support it. A little organization can go a long way. It might even prevent a future generation some hundreds of years distant from having to look back at us and ask: Why?