Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The 'Christian militia' and sedition

My knee jerked a little bit this morning when I read in the New York Times that members of the Hutaree "Christian militia" are being charged, among other offenses, with sedition. My reading of American history is that sedition charges -- usually "seditious libel" charges -- have been brought here mainly in cases where the government sought to punish dissent rather than any real attempt to bring down the government.

Still, if you define "sedition" as the "stirring up of rebellion against the government in power," then the Hutaree -- if you believe the federal government's allegations -- seem to fit it. In the charge of "seditious conspiracy," the government says the Hutaree

did knowingly conspire, confederate, and agree with each other and other persons known and unknown to the Grand Jury, to levy war against the United States, to oppose by force the authority of the Government of the United States, and to prevent, hinder, and delay by force any execution of United States law.

These allegation have to be proven, of course. But if true, they do seem to fit the definition.

So why does this seem so ... weird?

I think it's because the term "sedition" does have such a fraught history in this country, used mainly (it seems to me) to punish anti-war dissenters and mostly harmless leftists than genuine revolutionaries. "Sedition" has been a means of punishing thought crimes in this country, in other words.

And it's something that presidents and prosecutors have, in recent decades, seemed to avoid: My quick Google research can find no record of sedition or seditious libel charges for at least a half-century in this country. (UPDATE: A friend points out it's merely been 20 years since there's been a seditious conspiracy charge in this country. Still: That's fairly rare.) That's been true even through the attacks on Oklahoma City and the World Trade Center, and even as Americans like Jose Padilla, John Walker Lind and Adam Gadahn have taken up arms in the service of American enemies.

It seems, at first blush, that the "sedition" label might well fit the Hutaree. But given the history, it still makes me a little bit uncomfortable. And it frankly presents a bit of a challenge to the Obama Administration: It is, politically, continually fighting charges of "tyranny" from the right. Accurately deploying a "sedition" charge does not make Obama a tyrant -- but it will surely make it easier for the righty fringe to portrary him as one.

1 comment:

J said...

Well said, sir. Does *inappropriately* deploying charge of sedition a tyrant make?

I'm not suggesting that's what has happened; these guys do sound like nutjobs, but only time will tell (I hope) whether the charge fits any crime, or is just a way to rally hostility toward those who are crazy and rightwing. Because there are more than a few groups who are crazy and leftwing, too.