Friday, October 11, 2013

Angels & Demons

In the Depression-era movie "The Grapes of Wrath," there was a scene where the Joad family, day after dusty day of driving their barely running truck from Oklahoma to the new "promised land" of California, arrive at the government-sponsored camp.  The workers at the camp, government workers, wore very clean, white clothes.  To the Joad's, they glowed like angels - government agents coming to help them from the decimation of the Dust Bowl, death on the road, near starvation and the other real-life horrors of that time.  My wife's father-in-law, Elmo made that trip several times as a young man with his parents and brothers.  The helpful hand of the government was appreciated and needed.

That image of the "angels of government" have filled my mind the last couple of weeks as the so-called government shutdown continues (although since 83% of the government is still at work isn't it better called a government slowdown?).  I have been horrified at the quick transition of government agents, especially in the National Park Service, from angels to demons.  How is it that, literally, one day, the Park Police/Rangers are helpfully talking to people from around the world, encouraging them to explore the wonders of the monuments and parks around the US and the next day are drawing weapons on the same people, barricading them from accessing otherwise open spaces?  How can they transform from patient guides to police-state enforcers with the simple command of an unelected bureaucrat?  In a day?

What is even more unsettling, to me, is that the workers in the National Parks are willing to accept the orders.  From the October 4, 2013 Washington Times:
The Park Service appears to be closing streets on mere whim and caprice. The rangers even closed the parking lot at Mount Vernon, where the plantation home of George Washington is a favorite tourist destination. That was after they barred the new World War II Memorial on the Mall to veterans of World War II. But the government does not own Mount Vernon; it is privately owned by the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association. The ladies bought it years ago to preserve it as a national memorial. The feds closed access to the parking lots this week, even though the lots are jointly owned with the Mount Vernon ladies. The rangers are from the government, and they’re only here to help. “It’s a cheap way to deal with the situation,” an angry Park Service ranger in Washington says of the harassment. “We’ve been told to make life as difficult for people as we can. It’s disgusting.”

Armed Park Service guard blocks access to the Lincoln National Memorial

With all due respect to the Ranger who was willing to speak out, why are you obeying a disgusting and punitive order?  At what point would a Ranger (or other government employee) disobey an order like this?  They were willing to turn away World War II veterans from an open-air monument, arrest Vietnam veterans who visited "their" Wall, they even tried closing access to the ocean!

Two points stand out most clearly in all of this that contradict much of what we have come to believe about our institutions:

1.  We have been told that the National Lands are held by the Government for the benefit of all of the people.  That is not true.  In the past few weeks a claim is being made on national monuments and parks that it is the property of the government - and even at that it is used at the whim of the Administration (allowing immigration rally on the "closed" National Mall vs. closing all other areas to the public).  Has there been a fundamental transformation, as the President promised, in the relationship between publicly held lands/monuments/parks and the American people?  I think so and it is a transformation which must be reversed.

2.  We often use the old joke to make fun of government employees that "I'm from the government and I'm here to help you."  Today, there is no humor in that idea.  The swiftness with which the "angels" from the Park Service became "demons" who held elderly tourists inside a Yellowstone hotel at gunpoint, who terrorized foreign tourists who believed they were being arrested is more than frightening.  The full story is here.  In the news story, the phrase "Gestapo tactics" is used.  I'm not one to throw around Nazi-themed slurs but I do believe history offers us a window into our future. When Kristallnacht (the Night of Broken Glass) occurred to begin the persecution of Jews in Germany, Jews were shocked when their friends and neighbors turned on them.  The kind store-keeper was now an enemy, the dressmaker would no longer allow them in, they were considered vermin.  Likewise, I believe average Americans have been shocked at the image above and of elderly veterans in wheelchairs being treated like criminals.  Also comes news that IRS workers, contrary to "official" reports, were sharing personal data for political purposes.  Even in the worst days of backroom politics, this has been considered off-limits.  No more.  Has some fundamental transformation, as the President promised, occurred in relationship between citizens and government authorities? 

If, with a mere word, the kind Park Rangers become police-state agents, how can we ever have the same relationship with them when all of this passes?  If, with a simple email request personal tax information is shared for political purposes, how can we trust any information we give?  Most important, why haven't any stood up and refused to give in to such blatant, disgusting orders?

Will their response be "we were just following orders?" 

If so, that excuse has been used before too.  And when clear-headed minds prevailed, that excuse was found disgusting.  And invalid.  And wrong.

I'm not sure how we can restore the right relationship in regards to the national lands and government workers.  But it must begin to happen.  It will begin, I believe, when enough of us say "enough."  When we assert our right to the freedoms those old men fought for and for which the government used to defend.

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