Alienation and Its Discontents
Despite all the dire predictions, it looks as if Washington
has survived the first couple of days of The Closing of
Pennsylvania Avenue, proving once again that commuters are among
the most adaptable of creatures, capable of changing their MO at
a rate that would make a mutating virus look stodgy.
The decision to close sections of Pennsylvania Avenue and South
Executive Avenue may end up being a good one that will ultimately
result in creating a wonderful esplanade around the White House.
But the reason had nothing to do with improving the people's
enjoyment of the White House; instead it was this: The White
House needed to be made secure from the people.
President Harry S. Truman used to walk around town with a couple
of Secret Service agents. Today, thanks to a series of losers who
have taken out their rage on presidents, our chief executive
travels around in a limo equipped like an armored tank. The
bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City has turned the
spotlight of suspicion on right-wing militias that may be
breeding grounds for more violent acts against the federal
The fact is, though, we can't protect every federal building
from kooks who decide to pack rental trucks with ammonium nitrate
and diesel oil, which is easily available. So it makes some sense
to try to figure out what is causing this disaffection and
alienation, this profound mistrust of government.
Washington Post reporter Phil McCombs's Monday profile of
Pennsylvania militia founder David S. Laverty provided valuable
insights. Like many other militia types interviewed by the media
recently, he's deeply into conspiracy theories involving U.N.
troops, international bankers, one-world governments and forces
determined to take citizens' guns. Laverty demonstrated little
understanding of how government works. but much hostility toward
it. He sees little difference between politicians who hold wildly
divergent views. He's even mad at Rush Limbaugh, because in his
view Limbaugh's not buying the conspiracy theories that the
Christian patriot movement lives by.
Laverty is full of contradictions: He and his wife describe
themselves as Bible-following Christians, but they don't attend
church. They've both been divorced. She is home-schooling their
children. They sold their house last year and invested in guns,
gold and freeze-dried food, essential for survival when the
invasion comes. He's moved his wife and children somewhere into
the woods, which is not the kind of thing likely to endear him to
child-protection authorities. If he makes $20,000 a year as a
roofer and doing other odd jobs on houses, it's high. Unlike his
father and grandfather, he does not have a steady job. He's
described himself as uneducated. You get the picture of a
hard-luck guy who didn't start out with much and is looking ior
something to give some meaning and structure to his life,
something that will give him a sense of accomplishment.
Which makes him pretty normal.
History tells us that one key to understanding militia movements
is to understand the impact on real human beings of the economic
dislocation of the last 15 years. In 1973, a man with a high
school education made a median income (in 1989 dollars) of
$30,252. Sixteen years later, in 1989, he made $21,650. A man
with less than a high school degree saw his income go from
$24,079 down to $14,439.
At a White House reception recognizing the 75th anniversary of
the Women's Bureau on Friday -- shortly before he decided to
close Pennsylvania Avenue -- President Clinton talked about the
economic dislocation and the costs to American families. Men who
are 45 have lost 14 percent of their earning power in the last 10
years, he said. He spoke of a fauit line that is pulling the
middle class apart.
Revolutionary movements spring from cultures in which things are
going wrong, not in which they are going right. A psychiatrist
told McCombs he believes much of this has to do with people
feeling that they are not in control of things. Declining
earnings, a growing sense that jobs aren't secure, that you may
not be able to support your family and educate your children, all
of that contributes to anxiety levels that breed these kinds of
Closing Pennsylvania Avenue is one response. Harder, but in the
long run most effective, will be our ability to build a new
econonlic foundation for the groups that have had such a
staggering financial hit since 1973, so that those people once
again can have a stake in a system that is generating income and
security--not conspiracies and manhunts.
Pennsylvania Ave. Closure || Peace Park