Do U.S. citizens have the right to protest? When does the act of protest cross the line into terrorism?
Public attention has turned to the events of April 19, 1997 after the death of James Nichols on February 14, 2017. He was the brother of Terry Nichols and was arrested along with Timothy McVeigh. His Decker, Michigan farm was part of a huge FBI investigation and a Michael Moore documentary “Bowling For Columbine.”
Terry Nichols is serving a life sentence in Colorado. McVeigh was found guilty of 15 counts of murder and conspiracy and put to death by lethal injection in 2001.
The reason for all this, of course, is the 1997 Oklahoma City bombing of the Murrah Federal Building. McVeigh claimed sole responsibility – though many discrepancies and leads were never explained. He said he chose the Murrah Federal Building because it would provide good camera angles and media coverage.
In addition, Nichols pointed to two incidents of government over-involvement as the reason for what he thought of as a necessary act of radical protest. April 19th was chosen as the date for the bombing as it was the anniversary of the standoff at the Branch Davidian compound in Waco Texas, where 80 ended up dead.
In a letter written to Fox News, McVeigh – a decorated Gulf War veteran – explains he was acting as the U.S. Government acts in dealing with foreign governments. It was a calculated strike against a government that had become increasingly violent and hostile to its own citizens.
A Right to Protest?
McVeigh undoubtedly committed enormous crimes, for which he paid the highest penalty our justice system deals out. His protest, however, reminds us not only of what happened in Waco or Ruby Ridge, but of more recent standoffs and protests involving American citizens, guns, and government agencies.
In reality, these protests are about power. This includes who has power, who feels powerless, and what people resort to in a power struggle. It’s also about rights the writers of our constitution recognized and outlined as the natural rights possessed by every citizen and how these rights are defined and applied to legal cases as they arise.
The first among these rights the constitution recognizes in the First Amendment is freedom of speech. You can read a full description of case histories that have interpreted this right through our history at U.S. Courts.
The First Amendment
The First Amendment recognizes the right of citizens to engage in symbolic speech (among other things) like burning an American flag (Texas v. Johnson, 491 U.S. 397 (1989); United States v. Eichman, 496 U.S. 310 (1990)) or to use certain offensive words and phrases to convey political messages (Cohen v. California, 403 U.S. 15 (1971)) even if and when there are others who would find it offensive or objectionable.
The First Amendment does not recognize anyone’s right “To incite actions that would harm others (Schenck v. United States, 249 U.S. 47 (1919)).” This would include any symbolic action which takes a person’s life, however much in protest and not with the intent to take innocent lives.
The interpretation of the Second Amendment (recognizing the right of citizens to keep and bear arms [weapons]) has been much debated in the last few decades as more and more violent attacks on U.S. soil, against innocent civilians, have taken place. Here is what it says:
“A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”
Over to You
What do you think? Do the rights recognized in the First and Second Amendment give anyone license to own a gun, keep a militia or engage in protest? What rights do those who are keeping weapons, but who don’t pose a threat to society have? Did McVeigh’s protest over government hostility have merit even if his method was criminal, or should it be ignored?