King Philip's War Credit: Wikimedia

Because someone left a 1997 issue of the New England Quarterly lying on a table in the Newberry lounge, I’ve just read a commentary on the Indian rebellion of 1675 to 1678, which are remembered as King Philip’s War. As ships continued to arrive from Europe, natives who’d lived at peace with Puritan settlers were no longer willing to tolerate the unrelenting encroachment on their lands. They rose up.

Some Indians were Christian and some were not, wrote James Drake, author of “Restraining Atrocity: The Conduct of King Philip’s War”; some Indians were separatists yet others fought against them. The Puritans were confronted with difficult distinctions many of them had no patience for:

“Military leaders with formal training and government officials tended to show restraint in their punishment of separatists and to attempt to differentiate among them according to degrees of guilt. English colonists of the ‘lower sort,’ on the other hand—Puritan volunteers, civilians, and those English combatants without formal military training—tended to execute Indians simply for who they were. They despised all Indians, separatist or not, and spent little time trying to differentiate among them. Magistrates and military officials disapproved of such unreflective behavior, but civilians anxious for revenge applauded it.”

Drake drew a contrast between two colonist military leaders. One was Daniel Gookin, who’d received military training in England and led a company based in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Gookin championed the use of Christian Indians in fighting the separatists; he was appalled by colonists who didn’t distinguish between the Christians and what Gookin called the “profane and brutish heathen” and who wanted to kill them all. The other military leader was someone Gookin despised. Samuel Moseley “led a company of volunteers who, for the most part, had not been enrolled in town militias because they were former pirates, servants, and apprentices.” These volunteers, said Drake, “often disregarded rules of proper conduct and were responsible for some of the war’s most notable atrocities.”
Members of an antigovernment militia gather around a campfire outside of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge Headquarters near Burns, Oregon.Credit: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

The New World has come a long way, if today even the most extreme of our candidates running for president merely propose evacuating “aliens” we can’t be sure of rather than exterminating them. But what Drake wrote that struck me as particularly pertinent was his mention of militias. At the time they were what passed for colonial armies—bodies of responsible men who kept their arms handy and could be called on to defend their families and neighbors in an emergency. Today, the militia is a more abstract concept. It’s certainly not the National Guard—which can be called out by governors but ultimately answers to the president. It’s more along the lines of the Pacific Patriots Network, described by Oregon media as a “consortium of several groups from Oregon, Washington and Idaho,” which arrived last week at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge standoff “carrying rifles and sidearms and clad in military attire and bulletproof vests,” and claiming they were there to “de-escalate” the situation. They’ve since moved on.

In short, the militia in whose name the Second Amendment is so vehemently championed seems to be some sort of loosely organized (at best), untrained, but constitutionally guaranteed body of loose cannons united by guns and dark suspicions who are ready to go whenever liberty—as they understand it—is imperiled. It’s Samuel Moseley’s irregulars.

We’re looking at a serious difference of opinion. The National Rifle Association insists it is serving the nation well, because the Second Amendment guarantees “that all free people have the right to defend themselves, their families, communities and nation.” Other people believe the NRA is enabling paranoiacs to amass weapons against the day America becomes so incomprehensible and frightening to them they decide it’s time to declare war on it—as Timothy McVeigh did in Oklahoma City in 1995.

The NRA’s Second Amendment vigilance, in other words, either defends us against jihadi terrorists or it strengthens the hand of right-wing crazies—which is a serious concern of people I know who surf the Internet or have spent time monitoring heartland radio stations or are familiar with the mail that arrives every day at the White House. Maybe it does both.