Israel seemed surprised. Shocked, even.
After explaining my commitment to liberty of conscience, I told him I had no intention of arguing about the correctness of his religious views. Nor would I attempt to defend my own. I couldn’t convince him, and he couldn’t convince me. To try would be folly.
He believes life begins at conception and abortion is murder. I do not. No rational means exists to discredit his views or vindicate my own. These questions do not dwell in the realm of reason.
But other, related questions do, and I posed one to Israel, a soft-spoken, slightly built man my own age standing outside the women’s health clinic where we both had come the day after the Supreme Court overruled Roe v. Wade. I was there to help women. He and his fellow religious zealots came to heckle and harass them.
I told Israel I wanted to know if I should fear him. He looked confused. I followed up.
“Are you content to hold your religious beliefs as your own, or do you also wish to order my life according to those beliefs?” I clarified further: “Would you use the coercive power of the state to deny me the right to be married to my husband?”
It’s a straightforward question with only two answers: yes or no. Either Israel believes I should be permitted to be married to Alex, or he believes I should not.
He hedged at first with a meandering response about God’s laws and was slow to tell me what he thinks about man’s laws.
After several minutes of talking without answering, I encouraged him to have the courage of his convictions and admit what he’d so far merely suggested. “Just say it,” I told him: You think the laws of man should prohibit my marriage to my husband.
He finally agreed, and I flushed even as I knew all along what the answer would be. My face must have pinched, too, because Israel said so, and I believed him. I could hear the rage in my voice.
“Then you are a tyrant,” I told him. “And I have every reason to fear you.”
He assured me he was no such thing and pointed out that it was I, not he, who was suddenly speaking with a certain edginess.
“Oppression provokes rage,” I told him, “and just because you talk with a smile on your face and a softness in your voice does not mean you are not a tyrant.”
That’s when I noticed Israel’s look of surprise. He’s a “nice guy” spreading the word and trying to help unborn babies, and now he’s been called a brute. Over a political dispute?
His shock would have been warranted if our disagreement were over property tax rates or Medicaid expansion or foreign policy. Those sorts of issues don’t touch upon anyone’s ability to claim full membership in American society.
That’s not so when Israel believes my marriage should be broken up and me and my husband thrown in jail because we have sex. He and I hold contrary views not on a discrete issue of politics, but on my status as a citizen and human being. (I’m reminded of Hannah Arendt’s observation that citizenship is “the right to have rights.”)
I believe Israel’s feeling of surprise was honest. Like him, many of us too often think bad guys must move in shadows and be drawn with sharp edges, an ominous bass note accompanying them wherever they go. And we believe bad guys go about their lives thinking of themselves as bad guys while they ponder their next act of villainy.
Blockbuster movies and low-brow pop culture have retarded our ability to form sound judgments about America’s next-door autocrats.
Bad guys look like good guys. They live among us, wave when we see them, and smile at us before extending a hand to be shaken. They’re polite and cordial. They belong to the professional classes and hold leadership posts in community organizations. They pick up their kids in the school’s car line and coach soccer and attend Rotary lunches. They wear business suits and clerical collars and judges’ robes.
Our bad guys believe these indicia of respectability ought to protect them from the anger that arises within us because of their decision to attempt to relegate us to the gutters of civil society and public life. They place themselves at war with us and then express surprise when we see them as enemies.
Notwithstanding their implicit request that we do so, we cannot afford to adopt as our own their view of this conflict: We are at war, and these people — and, importantly, those who enable them — are not our opponents, but our enemies.
We owe them neither civility nor courtesy nor comity. They are not entitled to our engagement, and we are not obligated to indulge their sparring as merely political. They deserve nothing but our contempt and the fruits of our rage so long as they persist in their work to strip us of our rights and deny us our full humanity.
This is especially so for people of power — like Supreme Court justices who lied to earn lifetime appointments and are now using their positions to further a revanchist political and social agenda aimed at marginalizing millions of people.
Such loathsome individuals should not be feted at law schools, foundation luncheons, and legal conferences as respectable dignitaries. They are no such things: They are lying partisan hacks who should be hounded at every opportunity and deserve every bit of disruption and unpleasantness we can heap upon them in every facet of their lives, personal and professional. Peace should never be theirs while they wage war against us.
I’m saddened to reach this conclusion, but I have done so honestly — even as the words of Abraham Lincoln rang in my ears and caused me some doubt.
“We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies,” Lincoln intoned in his First Inaugural in an attempt to avoid the scourge of civil war.
“Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”
Noble rhetoric, but by the time Lincoln uttered those words, seven states had already seceded. Four more followed, as did a bloody war. His hopeful plea — “We must not be enemies” — was not only wrong, but delusional. We were enemies. The forces of bondage and oppression in his day had chartered their course, and his wishful words encouraging them to act differently did not persuade. Only a fight defeated them.
There are times when we can hope for reconciliation and unity, but, as Lincoln learned in 1861, those times are not eternal. Hope must sometimes give way to a somber acknowledgement of its frustration.
Four years later, Lincoln gave his Second Inaugural as the war he sought to avoid was winding down. He looked back over the preceding years and observed, “Both parties deprecated war but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive, and the other would accept war rather than let it perish. And the war came.”
Today, some Americans would make war on racial minorities, women, and queer people rather than live in a pluralistic, secular society animated by aspirations of justice and equality and disdainful of white supremacy, misogyny, and homophobia. Others of us, I hope, would accept war — and honestly call it what it is — rather than let such a vision triumph.