In 1995, Timothy McVeigh bombed the Federal Building in Oklahoma City. It was the worst act of homegrown terrorism in our nation's history.
When he set off the truck bomb, McVeigh was wearing a T-shirt that read: "The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants." The words, taken from a letter written by Thomas Jefferson, were ripped out of their context to justify the cold-blooded murder of 168 innocent Americans, including 15 children in a day care center.
It is outrageous — beyond outrageous — that members of the right wing of the Republican Party have adopted these words which will always be linked with the Oklahoma City bombing as their own. But adopt them they have. Just Google the phrase. You'll find it on countless ultraconservative websites. And you'll see it emblazoned on posters at Tea Parties across the country.
In their own sick, deluded way, the people shouting this slogan are applauding Timothy McVeigh as a hero and pledging allegiance to the idea that slaughtering innocent Americans is a justifiable act of rebellion, even patriotism.
Read the quotation again: "The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants."
People who repeat it fly into a rage at the thought of a Democratic President, and especially Obama, sitting in the White House. They believe slinging a rifle over their shoulders at an anti-Obama rally is an act of patriotism. These people are proclaiming in no uncertain terms, "We are perfectly willing to resort to violence if we think the Democrats have gone too far. So watch out, Barack, we mean business!"
"But Jefferson said it, not us," they protest. "See, even the Founding Fathers support our righteous cause!"
In fact, no. While it's true Jefferson wrote those words in 1787, the point he was making should make the people who use the quotation today blush – if they were capable of shame, that is.
Earlier in 1787, the U.S. government put down an armed rebellion in Massachusetts, known as Shays' Rebellion. Jefferson wrote in his letter that the rebellion was wrong — "founded in ignorance" were the words he used — and the government was right to put it down. But he didn't want the rebels punished too harshly, because they considered themselves patriots. "The people cannot be all, and always, well informed."
Jefferson believed it's sometimes reasonable to "pardon and pacify" patriotic fools — but only after we "set them right." Personally, I wouldn't want to be associated with a quotation that called me a fool, even a patriotic one. But then again, I don't take marching orders from Glenn Beck, the crown prince of village idiots. So maybe these people don't mind.
And if we look at a letter Jefferson wrote a few months earlier, we find him singing the praises of the United States because we, unlike European nations, have a government that allows us to resolve our differences without resorting to violence.
"Happy for us," Jefferson wrote, "that when we find our constitutions defective and insufficient to secure the happiness of our people, we can assemble with all the coolness of philosophers and set it to rights, while every other nation on earth must have recourse to arms to amend or to restore their constitutions."
I'll let scholars who have pored through Jefferson's voluminous writings argue over the details of his political philosophy. But I know he believed in the peaceful revolutions we call "elections" that happen every few years in this country. In the last one, voters gave Obama a sizable majority and chose to put more Democrats into Congress than Republicans. Next year, voters will get another opportunity to change the balance of power using the democracy our Founding Fathers bequeathed to us without, we can hope, dangerous fools resorting to violence or threats of violence.