In 1170, the king of England found himself in a dispute with the Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury, one of those church-state disputes that roiled politics in the Middle Ages. One day, in a fury, King Henry II cried out: “Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?”
He later expressed surprise when some of his knights went to the cathedral and did just that, by cutting off the archbishop’s head.
In April, President Trump, unhappy with the virus-related restrictions imposed by some governors, tweeted “Liberate Minnesota!,” “Liberate Michigan!” and “Liberate Virginia!”
Now, the FBI alleges that some men decided to do just that, hatching a plot to kidnap — and possibly kill — the governor of Michigan. On Tuesday, an FBI agent testified that the conspirators discussed kidnapping the governor of Virginia, as well. Should the governor of Minnesota be worried next? Or should we all?
Trump, who has professed devotion to “law and order” when it comes to Black Lives Matters-inspired protests, seems not much interested in law and order here — even though part of the alleged plot was to kill police officers, as well. Trump’s response was not to praise the federal authorities who busted up this alleged plot, not to say some high-sounding words about democracy, but to bash Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer for doing “a terrible job.” Maybe she has — that’s a matter of political opinion. But maybe some of the business owners who got burned out in Kenosha, Wisconsin, were doing “a terrible job,” too but that doesn’t really matter, does it? They didn’t deserve to get burned out and a democracy cannot tolerate threats to solve political disputes by force. Thought experiment: How would Trump and others have reacted if this were a Black Lives Matter or Antifa plot to kidnap a Republican governor?
Does Trump bear any responsibility here for inspiring this plot, at least indirectly? Was Henry II responsible for what his knights did?
If yes, that’s a frightening thought— that a president could indirectly inspire domestic terrorism. If no, that’s frightening in another way — because that means this alleged plot could have happened anywhere.
Here’s the thing to keep in mind: The restrictions in Michigan don’t appear much different from that imposed in many other states — even some with Republican governors.
Michigan has ordered anyone over age 4 to wear masks in most public settings. In all, 33 states have some form of mask mandate — a list long enough to include a lot of very conservative states and nine that have Republican governors. A 34th state — Mississippi, which also has a Republican governor — used to have a mask mandate but dropped it after virus counts went down.
Michigan’s age 4 threshold is lower than most — in Virginia, Gov. Ralph Northam’s order applies to all those 10 and up. However, Michigan’s age limit isn’t the most restrictive in the country. In eight states, the mask mandate applies starting at age 2. Two of those states — Massachusetts and Vermont — have Republican governors. New Hampshire — another state with a Republican governor — doesn’t have a statewide mask mandate but does have one for certain types of events, and that order also extends down to age 2. In Maryland, the mask mandate starts at age 5; in Alabama at age 6. Both have Republican governors.
So why the particular outrage in Michigan?
The FBI says the alleged plotters were particularly incensed that Michigan had closed its gyms to limit the spread of the virus. Once again, Michigan is not an outlier. According to the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association, at least 39 states ordered gyms closed at least for awhile. Virginia, of course, was a state that closed gyms. The response here wasn’t a plot to try to kidnap the governor, but that most legal of responses — a lawsuit. The owner of a chain of Gold’s Gyms hired two lawyers — who just happened to be state legislators — and went to court. State Sens. Bill Stanley, R-Franklin County Ryan McDougle, R-Hanover County — took their case to the Virginia Supreme Court but lost. Gyms in both states have since reopened, but with various restrictions.
If there’s tyranny in Michigan — that appeared to be a favorite word of the alleged plotters — then there’s tyranny going on in lots of places. That the plotters invoked the word “tyrant” to describe Whitmer gets our attention in other ways. “Tyrant” is a word written into Virginia law, in the form of declaring our official motto to be “Sic Semper Tyrannis,” Latin for “Thus Always To Tyrants.” We are a state that officially celebrates the overthrow of tyranny. If any deluded souls take that as inspiration here, they have no concept of what tyranny really is.
During World War II, coastal states and states with factories important to the defense industry (such as Michigan) were subject to blackouts — even though no Nazi bombers ever came anywhere close to North America. Shutting off the lights at a certain time was considered a patriotic duty. Today we really have been invaded by an enemy — just one we can’t see — and how do some people react? According to the indictment, these fellows in Michigan were too self-centered to join in the common defense — so they decided to cosplay as revolutionaries and allegedly plot a violent crime. Their grandparents and great-grandparents who really did make sacrifices would be ashamed of their descendants’ fragility. Instead of decrying supposed “tyranny,” perhaps these alleged plotters should have been thanking the governor for helping spare them from the tyranny of a deadly pathogen: Michigan’s virus rates are lower than two of the three states with which it shares a land border — and, indeed, among the lowest in the country. Only 13 states have a lower infection rate. Even then, the virus has claimed 7,225 lives in Michigan — or more people than the entire United States lost in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
We’d like to think that what allegedly happened in Michigan is the classic “isolated incident.” Virginians, of all people, should know better. We were the ones who had all those white supremacists marching through the streets of Charlottesville in 2017 and, no, there were not “very fine people” on both sides. Somehow, we have become a nation where things once unthinkable are now being not just thought — but in some cases acted on. It’s useful to reflect upon how we got here, but more useful to reflect on how we get out of this.
Catch the latest in Opinion
Get opinion pieces, letters and editorials sent directly to your inbox weekly!