A missing ‘higher principle’ on Jan. 6

Dr. Stephen Kershnar’s recent article (Jan. 13) describes the widespread reaction to the events of Jan. 6 as “overreaction” and “pure pretext.” He goes on to wonder whether protesting “… an election awash in fraud …” is good reason for civil disobedience.

He laments that he does not know, because he does not have “a good enough theory of civil disobedience.” For purposes of his argument, this statement is shrewd (and characteristically disingenuous). It rescues him from having to confront the predominately non-violent component of civil disobedience as developed by Henry David Thoreau, Mahatma Gandhi, and Martin Luther King, Jr.

Civil disobedience is a ritualistic violation of the law rather than a rejection of the system as a whole. The civil disobedient, finding legitimate avenues of change blocked or nonexistent, feels obligated by a higher principle to break some specific law. It is because acts associated with civil disobedience are considered crimes (and known by actor and public alike to be punishable) that such acts serve as a protest. By submitting to punishment, the civil disobedient hopes to set a moral example that will provoke the majority or the government into effecting meaningful political, social, or economic change. Under the imperative of setting a moral example, leaders of civil disobedience insist that the illegal actions be nonviolent. A civil disobedient welcomes arrest, to make his or her point.

Dr. King regarded civil disobedience to be a display and practice of reverence for law: “Any man who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust and willingly accepts the penalty by staying in jail to arouse the conscience of the community on the injustice of the law is at that moment expressing the very highest respect for the law.”

On Jan. 6, the violent rioters were not attempting to set a moral example to provoke meaningful change. The were frustrated and whipped up to a frenzy. They attacked a fundamental aspect of democratic process (i.e., certifying an election whose results had undergone scrutiny at multiple judicial levels up to the Supreme Court…we call it “rule of law.”) It’s pretty hard to “overreact” to something like that. And it’s beyond misguided to compare Gandhi and King, in any way, to the Q-anon Shaman and cronies.

The old guys in my family were simply armchair philosophers, but they had the sense to know that “two wrongs don’t make a right.” If the summer riots and looting were under-reported or under-investigated, that was not right. As it’s not right to imply that President Joe Biden has not consistently condemned instances of violent protest. Comparisons to Jan. 6 are specious and should not be used to deflect. All violent actors should be held to account, in relation to the laws they broke.

Gail A. Crowe is a Fredonia resident.


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