Many of the greatest crimes in history have been perpetrated by governments. This isn’t limited to global, civilization-sized crimes like wars, mass exterminations, concentration camps, and purges. Even the relatively modest FBI murders at Ruby Ridge and Waco, at once coordinated and chaotic, are hard to conceive being carried out by ordinary citizens—even citizens armed with evil AR-15s.
Only a criminally insane person would torture another human being, but thousands of government employees manage the task every day around the world. Until a few months ago, I would have been referring exclusively to Marxist dictatorships, but now we’ve received word of the special detention facility set up in Washington, D.C. for the January 6 protesters, in which men are isolated for 23 hours a day, and where a man was maced after having a breakdown in solitary confinement and many others have been beaten, including one who suffered a broken orbital bone that may permanently damage his vision.
One reason governments are so good at this sort of crime—basic brutality—is that, like any crime syndicate, they separate the man kicking someone with his boot from the higher authority giving the orders to kick. The prison guard slamming a man’s head into a concrete floor (as Richard Barnett’s head was slammed) is released from the rules of conduct that would ordinarily govern his behavior because he is following orders. But unlike a regular crime syndicate, the low-level functionary is not liable for the results. The government indemnifies him. Responsibility is divorced from action.
This was the excuse used by every single Nazi in Germany after World War II.
It wasn’t good to let them get away with it, but we did. Albert Speer, Hitler’s architect and ultimately the man in charge of war production, gives himself credit for coming up with the idea in his memoirs, which are fascinating reading. Speer records his worry that the entire German nation, down to a man, would bear the mark of Cain forever for their extraordinary crimes. The solution was to tell the Nuremberg Tribunal that the national leaders—and only the leaders—were responsible for the war.
Speer looks almost dignified in his self-sacrificial recounting, in which he takes on his own head the crimes of the Nazis so that the German people may be exonerated. He was sentenced to 20 years in prison, which, estimating the total deaths from the war at about 50 million, works out to about 12 seconds in prison for each person dead.
Speer’s ploy succeeded so thoroughly that his concept of collective irresponsibility is now taught in our schools. My high school history teacher once asked me incredulously, “What, would you hold every individual soldier in Germany responsible for what he did during the war?” To which I answer, emphatically: Yes! It’s the people following orders who give the leaders their power. That is why the Bible tells us not to follow a multitude to do evil, rather than saying “don’t worry if you’re in the multitude, it’s only the guy you’re following who’ll be in trouble.”
As it was with the Germans, so it was with the Soviets and the political executions so eloquently described by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn: It doesn’t come down to the judge who sentences a man to death under Article 58 for political crimes, it comes down to the 18-year-old soldier in a prison basement who puts a bullet into the back of the man’s neck.
Che Guevera (“If in doubt, kill him”) had a wall of his office removed so he could watch executions, a favorite pastime. He was a psychopath. But if the men on the firing squad hadn’t fired, he would have had nothing to watch. No doubt they were all scared of being “fired” themselves, but that’s a bad excuse. Never having been in those circumstances, I can’t guarantee I would perform any better than they did—but I know it would be my duty to try, and my guilt if I failed.
1776 made popular revolutions popular, and today you can find prominent nations that have had several. Why was the American Revolution the only one that worked? A brief comparison with the French Revolution shows two striking things.
First, where the American Revolution was saturated with the Bible and undertaken in a spirit of religious freedom, the French dedicated their revolution to “science,” banned religion, and transformed their Catholic churches into “Temples of Reason.” This led them to have such genius ideas as the 10-hour day and the 10-day week, both of which were immediately hated. The French Revolution is a powerful demonstration that worshipping reason, or what we would today call “believing in science,” is often a poor substitute for tradition.
The other big problem was that the French forgot, in their eagerness to get rid of the king, that a popular tyrant is no better than a monarchical one. They forgot, in other words, to limit the powers of government. The United States Constitution is explicit on this point—and it had to be because many states refused to sign the Constitution as it was originally written. While the Federalists are more quoted and generally thought to have been on the winning side—inasmuch as we have a federal government now—it is thanks to the Anti-Federalists that we have the Bill of Rights, including the 10th Amendment.
There are 18 powers explicitly granted to the federal government, and that’s all they’re allowed to have. Beating up citizens in a special federal facility before they have even been indicted, much less tried, much less convicted of a crime, is not one of the federal government’s 18 powers.
The people who are running this special prison in Washington, D.C.—yes, the individual guards who are just following orders—must be held responsible. They should be sent to prison. It is our collective responsibility to hold both the corrupt politician and the low-level enforcer to account.
The big lesson of the last six months is just a reminder of what America has always known: The only type of person you can trust in politics is someone who doesn’t want to be there. If it hadn’t been for the genuine miracle of George Washington, we can’t be certain, even given all the extraordinary men of that time, that our nation would have survived.
There can be no better emissary of limited government than someone who has survived its abuses. Solzhenitsyn would have made a considerably better president of Russia than either Boris Yeltsin or Vladimir Putin, but of course, he wouldn’t have wanted the job.
Richard Barnett—the man pictured in Nancy Pelosi’s chair, the man who was imprisoned and abused for making Pelosi look weak (in order to frighten you and me)—deserves to be elected to Congress in the next cycle. Every single Republican in the House and the Senate who failed to stand up for America after the fraudulent 2020 elections deserves to be primaried and ousted by a man who has survived Washington, D.C.’s special prison, the Pelosi Palace. Send the January 6 protesters back to Washington as our elected representatives. Give the D.C. establishment something to get really frightened about.