After news broke that an anti-government militia had plotted to kidnap Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, I was sent a clip of an interview with Barry County Sheriff Dar Leaf regarding the news of the arrest of Michael and William Null, two of the suspects in this case. Leaf knows William Null through a rally protesting Whitmer’s stay-at-home order, which became a topic of conversation when Leaf was interviewed by Fox 17.
When asked whether he regrets sharing a stage with someone charged in a plot to kidnap Whitmer, Leaf said, “It’s just a charge, and they say a ‘plot to kidnap’ and you got to remember that. Are they trying to kidnap … Because you can still in Michigan if it’s a felony, make a felony arrest.”
Leaf diminished the kidnapping attempt on Whitmer as an attempt of arrest. In the same interview, he uses a Michigan law that states that private persons can make arrests in certain situations to make this case. Leaf believes this kidnapping plot could be reasonable, and even legal, because of the anger towards Whitmer and her executive orders concerning COVID-19.
This mindset in excusing a kidnapping attempt as a citizen’s arrest is the same mindset that led to the plot in the first place. There is a lack of faith in institutions that has led to a lack of trust in government. This distrust of American institutions comes from the severe polarization that exists in the United States today. People see the actions of members of the opposite party as illegitimate, which leads to suspicion of the institutions that allowed those actions to occur. Whitmer is a Democrat, while the people involved in the attempt to kidnap her are linked to a right-wing militia group.
The plot to kidnap Whitmer stems from a belief that the actions she took to prevent the spread of COVID-19 made her a tyrant and in violation of the Constitution. Because Whitmer was committing a crime, the men accused in this kidnapping plot believe they were taking legal action to arrest and try her for the crimes she committed. The view certain citizens have — that the institutions allowing Whitmer to make these executive orders are illegitimate — have created backlash against these institutions as we know them to exist.
On May 6, the Michigan Legislature filed suit against Whitmer challenging her emergency orders regarding COVID-19 as “improper and invalid”; the plot to kidnap Whitmer began to take shape June 20, about a month and a half after. People who have faith in institutions do not subvert legal processes with illegal action.
Not everyone defines legality the same way. The U.S. government and I do not believe that this attempt to kidnap the governor is legal. But others, such as Leaf, believe that rather than kidnap Whitmer, the accused might have been trying to arrest her for felony charges. This is not to say that Leaf’s views are valid, but because he is a sheriff and therefore someone in a position of authority, they cannot be dismissed. As law enforcement, sheriffs must be accountable to the law as it is interpreted by legal systems, not personal definition.
This is why a lack of faith in our institutions is so dangerous. If people are not in agreement that we must respect our basic institutions, we live in a state of ambiguity about our laws. The role of the citizen is not to interpret the laws, but to change the laws they find unjust through other democratic functions. But what do we do when people disagree about what democratic functions are?
The suspects in the plot to kidnap Whitmer had previously expressed dissent in a constitutional and democratic way; the Null brothers were involved in protests in Lansing against Whitmer’s executive orders. Unfortunately for the Null brothers, concrete plans to kidnap a U.S. governor, or anyone, are not included in the right to protest.
Our country will not be able to withstand a citizenry that does not respect its institutions. Intolerance encourages and enables people to engage in whatever activity they see fit because they do not believe in the legitimacy of American institutions. The motivation to behave in accordance with what our institutions mandate disappears when respect for them disappears.
Belief that the government is illegitimate leads to dangerous ways of thinking. It allows people to think that illegal action they take is acceptable because the law itself is wrong. In the case of Whitmer, the suspects believe they could enforce the law, and define what terms in the law mean, because they disagree with the actions Whitmer took.
In order for American society to remain stable, both citizens and government officials must respect our institutions and express our grievances through accepted means of dissent.
Lydia Storella can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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