Liberty and democracy are fundamental values upon which our country was founded, and they remain central to the architecture and function of our government. Though both definitions are endlessly debated, our Constitution uses liberty to describe freedom from arbitrary and unreasonable restraint upon an individual. Furthermore, freedom from restraint is not just physical restraint, but also the freedom to act according to one’s own will. And though the word ‘democracy’ does not appear in the Constitution, the Federalist Papers give us plenty of clues as to the fundamentals of what they meant to establish when they set up a democratic republic — a system by and for the people.
Recently, however, both values have been put at risk as a growing number of Americans feel emboldened to use threats of violence and intimidation when elected (and in some cases non-elected) officials make decisions or have opinions that are contrary to one’s particular perspective on an issue.
Last week, U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland ordered the FBI to investigate harassment, intimidation, and threats of violence aimed at school boards in Georgia (one of several states) over objections to mask mandates and critical race theory. The attorney general’s order came after he received a letter from the National School Boards Association citing the need for immediate assistance to protect our students, teachers, staff, and school board members. In response to mask mandates in several Georgia communities, parents and community members have used threats and intimidation in counties such as Gwinnett and Cobb as a form of protest.
Last year, we saw spikes in death threats and plots against those running for office, such as Democratic Senator Raphael Warnock and even elections officials such as Republican Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensberger.
These threats were not aimed at a single political party — Republican and Democratic figures alike have been subject to these acts of intimidation. Now, a Georgia state oversight panel is rethinking its position on whether home security systems should qualify as a legitimate campaign-related expense. Let that sink in for a moment. In order to run for elected office, it is now expected that you will likely need to invest in additional security to ensure you are not harmed during your campaign.
There are many fine lines in our country when it comes to what we allow under the law. Free speech? Yes, but with exceptions. Protest? Absolutely, but with limitations. Our legal system has dealt with the interpretation of our rights and liberties through cases that have, over time, come to draw the lines for our society as to what is and is not acceptable. But threatening one’s life as a method for extracting your own will?
Not acceptable. Inducing fear suppresses free speech and dialogue, it does not foster it. Intimidation keeps people who would otherwise run for office from doing so, thereby constricting the ability for democracy to operate.
Last week Chuck Williams, a reporter with WRBL in Columbus, was a panelist on NPR’s Political Rewind discussing this issue of increased threats of violence. During the discussion, he stated that, “people … either have forgotten or don’t know where the line is … and they chose to run for the job, nobody should feel sorry for them, but there needs to be — people need to know where the line is.”
While I concur on his central point, I must disagree with at least part of his statement. When people run for office, they are choosing to run for the job, not threats on their life or the lives of their family.
This cannot be a part of how we the people get what we want from our political system. Perhaps the U.S. attorney general is aiming to remind us of where those lines are that we seem to have forgotten.