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Walter Rodgers

Rural America: 'If government's the problem, shoot it.'

The grand American tradition of disregard for the law – especially rural lawlessness – still thrives. This antigovernment flouting of the law may seem harmless, but it is corrosive and destructive, dismantling society rivet by rivet.

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It requires no great power of observation to see that in many pockets of Appalachia and much of rural America, our country cousins have long declared laws unto themselves. Old and established families often claim hereditary rights that they allege supersede state and US law, according to one federal law enforcement officer.

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It is a national joke that rural speeding violations and DUI citations are for out-of-towners only, not local townspeople. I know of one hamlet in western Massachusetts where, when a new police officer was hired, he was specifically told that townspeople were not to be ticketed.

Local immunities

A convenience store operator in one New England village reportedly hustles his grocery clerk out the back door when he gets word that a state inspector is on the way to check employment compensation records.

President Reagan did America no favors when he preached that “government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.”

On Virginia’s Eastern Shore, rural support for that sentiment means that some game wardens (who are federal law enforcement officials) feel the need to wear bulletproof vests to work every day. One told me that it was not uncommon in hunting season for him to be peppered with birdshot when he is out in a boat. Rural logic is obvious: “If government’s the problem, shoot it.”

US Coast Guard crews, charged with marine safety inspections and smuggling interdiction, privately complain about the antigovernment vibe. “The locals have great distrust and hostility toward us,” one Coast Guard seaman told me. Frequently, recreational boaters try to outrun the Coast Guard to escape prosecution for boating under the influence of alcohol or drugs.

That’s “failure to heave to.” And it’s a federal crime.

A distressed moral landscape

Flouting the law has become a kind of Declaration of Independence in the hinterlands. It is often aided and abetted by state and federal lawmakers intent on watering down existing statutes to cozy up to their “good ol’ boy” constituents.

Increasingly, Americans have come to believe the law applies to everyone else, as they claim their private immunities. They rail at Wall Street crimes and illegal immigrants, yet they wink at their own tax evasion and hiring of “day laborers” to help with yardwork. This collective lawlessness may seem mild enough to be harmless, but it is inevitably corrosive and destructive, dismantling a society rivet by rivet.

Walter Rodgers, a former senior international correspondent for CNN, writes a biweekly column.

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