Chill, People!

July 20 was and may still be a day of observance among some Europeans. It’s the date in 1944 when a group of German officers, including Field Marshall Erwin Rommel, made an attempt on the life of Adolf Hitler, their national leader and supreme commander. They planted a bomb under the table he was to sit at. It went off, but Hitler managed to escape with minor injuries. I recall an issue of the European edition of the US armed forces daily “Stars and Stripes” marking the 25th anniversary of that event and featuring photos of the bomb damage and a recounting of the assassination attempt and its aftermath. 

People have speculated on what might have happened if the July 20 plot had succeeded. The war that had ravaged Europe over the course of five years might have ended abruptly instead of raging on for eight more months. The policy that prohibits the murder of political leaders might beneficially have been relaxed for that particular assassination. The question thus arises whether there might be other occasions on which that policy should be relaxed. Of course, all discussion of that question is forbidden.

We tend to chill discussion of certain issues under certain circumstances. One particularly chilling circumstance is the commission of acts of inhumanity by our own government. As in the case of the Nazi regime that governed Germany during the war, our leaders use armed force to advance political and commercial ends. They do this without the formal approval of the people, evading the responsibilities imposed by our constitution. The destruction and bloodshed they inflict thus amounts to mayhem and murder. We might expect rational people under those circumstances to question whether their violent leaders might be restrained by the threat of violent consequences, such as Hitler faced in the summer of 1944. Don’t hold your breath waiting for such a discussion.

Recent events here in Hartford, Connecticut, are illustrative. A professor of sociology at Trinity College lost his job for publishing an essay confronting a closely related issue. A few weeks ago, a heavily armed man began shooting at a group of Republican members of Congress who were taking part in an athletic event at a ball field not far from the Capitol. None of the Republicans was killed, but one–a high-ranking right-winger with a reputation for bigoted rhetoric–suffered serious injuries. A member of his security detail–an African-American woman who might reasonably consider herself a target of his bigotry–risked her own life to help the member. In the aftermath of that ironic episode, the Trinity professor published an essay suggesting that victims of bigotry might justifiably withhold aid from bigots in trouble. He didn’t advocate the assassination of bigots, but his context was an attempt at just such an assassination. The college promptly placed the professor on leave, over the objections of a faculty committee.

The chill that goes out with the action against this professor reaches far beyond Trinity. If violence may not be mentioned in discussions of appropriate responses to bigotry, it’s certainly off-limits in discussions of just retribution for malfeasance among public officials. That’s unfortunate, because Americans are suffering an epidemic of official corruption, and there’s no apparent remedy for it. Corruption has so enriched the political class that it is immune to all accountability. The possibility of a violent, revolutionary response from the governed might profitably be discussed under such circumstances, maybe in the context of the July 20 plot, but that discussion is forbidden, as Trinity reminds us all.