On February 7, 2008, in Kirkwood, Missouri (a suburb of St. Louis), Charles Lee "Cookie" Thornton went on a shooting rampage at a meeting in the city hall, that left six people dead and two others injured.
My first thought was that he must have been an insane madman.
Having read more about the case, I am tentatively concluding that he was very rational, and very much like America's Founding Fathers.
That's not meant to praise Charles "Cookie" Thornton, who is a murderer; it's meant to apply a light of scrutiny and criticism on America's Founding Fathers and many Americans who think the same way.
For background, here is the Wikipedia entry. Another Wiki, created by St. Louis residents, is WikiLou: Opinion: Kirkwood racism boils over into violence. Finally, one of my favorite commentators, Will Grigg: Makers vs. Takers: A Firebell in the Night?
Thornton seems to have been a victim of arrogant city government that does not consider itself a "public servant" in the older sense of that word, but distrustful of and superior to the masses. As WikiLou reports:
So what pushed him so far? It started when Charles Thornton left town for three days. Owning his own construction business, he had 7 vehicles which he parked in the area around his home. He received no complaints about the vehicles in the past, but when he returned from his three day trip, he found 21 parking tickets (one on each vehicle for each day he was gone). He felt he was being targeted for no real reason. He'd caused no harm to anyone. If his vehicles caused a problem, couldn't they have simply mentioned it to him without hundreds of dollars worth of tickets? Well, the Kirkwood Police had found an easy target to bring in some revenue, and they took advantage of the situation. Following this, the Kirkwood police found reasons to give Thornton over 150 citations, which cost him thousands in fines.
A true "public servant" isn't going to put one ticket after another on a car that has already been ticketed. One can imagine a city government that works with residents to reach mutually agreed upon results (though it's difficult to find real-life examples of this imagined scenario). Thornton's appeals to the City Council were not successful.
Acting as his own attorney, Thornton filed a federal lawsuit alleging that the city had denied him his "rights to Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness" by removing him from those two [council] meetings. (LATimes)
George Washington is reported to have said: "Government is not reason, it is not eloquence — it is force. Like fire it is a dangerous servant and a fearful master. Never for a moment should it be left to irresponsible action."
Every action of government destroys (in some degree) the life, liberty, or property of others. George Washington and the other Founding Fathers recognized this inescapable tendency toward evil, and they sold the Constitution to The American People not on the basis of what wonderful things government would do for us ("stimulate the economy," "universal health care," "retirement security," education, etc.), but on the basis of the evil things the Constitution would prevent the government from doing to us.
America's Founding Fathers believed that government was evil, but "a necessary evil." I've come to the conclusion that government is unnecessary. But the better "public servants" recognize the fine line between "effective government" and tyranny. They know they're walking on thin ice. They use their force and deprive people of their life, liberty or property only as a last resort. They try to use eloquence and reason first, rather than starting off with force. They treat the public like neighbors and equals.
It would be a difficult assignment to describe the differences between the way "Cookie" Thornton was treated by his government, and the way the American colonies were treated by Britain. Britain treated the colonists like slaves, not free Englishmen: taxes, fines, arbitrary regulations, an attitude on the government's part that "we have the right to govern you," and wanton acts of drive-by governings committed almost daily.
America's Founding Fathers reacted like Thornton did. They were probably more educated and more eloquent, but they risked "our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor" to defend their life, liberty and property. They loaded their muskets and searched out the Red Coats. They fired upon them. The Red Coats fired back. Many Americans lost their lives, but they were prepared for that. They felt they had come to the end of the line. It was a last resort.
"Cookie" Thornton was prepared to die. He left his own Declaration of Independence: Columbia Missourian - Kirkwood gunman left suicide note, brother says:
"The truth will come out in the end" (Boston Herald)
"The truth will win in the end." (Los Angeles Times)
We can draw contrasts between the erudition and philosophical sophistication of Thornton's declaration and the more famous Declaration of July 4, 1776, but ethically they seem to me to be identical: A desperate response to an unresponsive government.
Every report I've read on the Kirkwood murders notes Thornton's frustration with government, but reminds us that these killings cannot be "excused" or "condoned."
Then we should not excuse or condone the American Revolution:
More in the next post.