When Barry Goldwater announced to the 1964 Republican Convention that "extremism in defense of libery is no vice," I cheered, at least inwardly. Somewhere in the relics of my high school years I still may have a Goldwater bumper sticker, although I never put it on the car, strangely enough. I was just 16, just driving my dad's Chev. I thought of myself as a real Goldwater patriot.
A sweet man, a good friend of my parents, asked me back then if I wanted to come along to a meeting one night--with him and his son, my friend. Didn't say what kind, just asked. I went. That meeting was held at maybe the biggest lakefront home in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, in actuality, a mansion. We sat on wooden folding chairs in one of many rooms of that palace and watched a slide/tape presentation that showed Dr. Martin Luther King shaking hands with communists, asserting that was one of them. We were, back then, in the icy-est years of the Cold War, the Cuban Missle Crisis just a few deep breaths behind.
I was 16, but I was smart enough to know that what Goldwater was talking about, that he was legitimizing was outfits like the John Birch Society, a meeting of which I'd attended in that lakefront mansion. He was finding a place for the true believers, the zealots.
But it didn't take long for me to know that extremism in defense of anything is, well, extremism, and that King was no more a communist than I was. That what King stood for was the recognition of sins white America had to face--slavery and racism.
But then, change didn't feel like a patriotic thing in the Sixties, especially if you were white and as rich as the guy who owned the mansion. The man had a ton to lose to change. It didn't take me too long to realize that what motivated those who attended that odd clandestine meeting in the county's biggest mansion wasn't patriotism but fear, specifically fear of losing power.
Today, I feel fear myself when I hear, as I did last night, that Eric Prince, of Blackwater fame, its fearless leader, has been accused by his own former associates--they may well be disgruntled--of all sorts of heinousness, including being part of an effort to silence critics in his own organization. Read "silence" as if we're in a segment from The Sopranos.
These are allegations and they're reported by media known by the right to be lefties, but there's something in the allegations that scares me. Here's my fear--that a potent cocktail of religious and patriotic fervor can altogether too easily ignite into hysteria--and even worse. Prins, heir to his father's millions, a man who left the Naval Academy because the place was not conservative enough for his tastes, created Blackwater, a mercenary army that President Bush found useful in Iraq. Although tens of thousands of such mercenaries were part of the war effort, they weren't as policed as U.S. troops, of course, and were therefore capable of pulling off stunts no Congress oversight committee would approve of or even know about. Problems arose.
In addition to being an ex-Navy Seal and heir to millions, Prins is a Christian school graduate, twelve whole years, Holland Christian, Holland, Michigan. Clearly, some of what he learned stuck. After all, some describe him as a strong Christian, a "crusader" against the Muslims, a word with specific historical connotations, at least to the Islamic world. One gets the sense that, like Barry Goldwater, Eric Prince was absolutely sure that extremism in defense of liberty was no vice. Like I said, some of what he learned, stuck. Some.
There's just something about that whole story that scares me, I must admit, but more that simply makes me very, very sad.