State militias and individual rights: The strength of moral convictions

On the eve of the fifteenth anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing there is talk of developing a state-supported but privately run militia group to protect citizens from “an overreaching federal government” recently epitomized by the passage of healthcare legislation. Talk of a militia group stokes emotional fires on either side of the debate. With recent militia busts in Michigan where plots were underway to attach law enforcement many argue that forming a separate militia group is going too far. Others, harkening to Confederate-era rhetoric of state’s rights, suggest that the individual citizen deserves a guarantee of protection from a federal government that is increasingly interfering in individual lives and state rights.

Indeed, so-called “Patriot” groups are on the rise. The Southern Poverty Law Center reports that since 2008, the number of patriot groups has risen from 149 to 512. Of these groups, 127 are militias. Though these groups are becoming more popular and anti-government rhetoric is on the rise, the concern is less with the formation of the groups than the way in which they may harbor lone extremist individuals seeking a forum for their anger and justification for violent acts. In a recent Christian Science Monitor piece, a member of the Hutaree militia is reported as apparently helping in the bust of the plans against law enforcement. The article argues that militias are acutely aware of the dangers that single rogue members can pose and how these members’ actions can hurt the message of the groups.

Any group risks its own identity — and indeed has to be flexible in this regard — when growing its base, militias would be no different. But impassioned arguments mixed with the right to bear arms could be a bit more concerning. A recent article in the Social and Personality Psychology Compass suggests that when it comes to morality, the psychological stakes are much higher than other attitudes or motivations. “Moral convictions” the author argues, are psychologically distinct from other attitudes and are more likely to compel a person to become politically involved but to also be more accepting of violence as a means to an end. The outcomes of such convictions are simultaneously reassuring and troubling. While organizing to protect rights is an activity that activists across the political spectrum engage in, it raises the question as to how we possibly begin to find a common ground or make progress on issues that register at such personal levels. As the author points out, moral convictions give us the courage to act, but they have also been used to justify heinous crimes. The cases of proliferating militias will force us to consider the nuances of moral convictions and the complicated nature of defending the rights of the individual (or, in this case, states). This reminds me of two of my favorite sayings by my high school government teacher: “I may not agree with your opinions but I’ll defend til death your right to say them” which was often shortly followed by “your rights end where mine begin.” Gray areas are, indeed, quite gray.

Skitka, L. (2010). The psychology of moral conviction. Social and Personality Psychology Compass.

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