John Shirley is the author of numerous novels, story collections, screenplays ("THE CROW"), teleplays and articles. A futurologist and social critic, John was a featured speaker at TED-x in Brussels in 2011. We asked him to to examine the record of behavior of sovereign citizens and wonder about the mentality behind it.
How do they justify it? How does it even arise in their frantically busy, undernourished minds? How does it take over their lives?
I refer to the hundreds of thousands of people who imagine they do not have to pay taxes like you do; who believe they don't have to follow a lot of other rules you have to follow.
No, I don't mean the CEOs of major corporations -- that's another outlaw group. I mean "sovereign citizens" and related groups. The sovereign citizen movement is only fitfully, intermittently organized, perhaps in keeping with its right-wing variant of anarchism, but against all odds, perhaps due to Internet irrigation, forever feeding its obsessions, it continues to grow.
Sovereigns claim that the 14th Amendment relating to citizenship was "never properly ratified" and the 16th relating to taxation wasn't ratified properly and didn't specify power to collect taxes. Apart from whatever common law they agree to, they are, they claim, sovereign unto themselves, and not U.S. citizens at all. All such claims have been tossed out with precedent finality in federal court.
But sovereign citizens never give up. It's true that sovereign citizens rarely take up arms -- they prefer to take up paper, reams of it. They employ "paper terrorism" against the courts, filing endless challenges, using legal formulas often sold to them by hucksters who exploit the credulity of sovereign radicals.
But since sovereigns are endlessly refuted and dismissed, legally and by consensus, why don't they become discouraged? Why do they keep coming back for more? To find out, we have to try to penetrate several onion skins of their eye-watering minds to understand what keeps them going.
Racism appears to be one outer layer of onion skin, for some sovereigns. They claim that the Preamble to the Constitution excludes blacks from citizenship -- because it speaks of rights for existing citizens and their descendants who are supposedly only white folk. For Sovereigns employing a hallucinatory exercise in pseudo-logic this bizarrely biased interpretation of the Preamble serves to generally undermine the authority of the present government -- and, they imagine, to empower white racists. Without it they feel they have no defense against the supposed horrors of multiculturalism; they're caught up in xenophobic reaction to other races, other cultures. And that feeling of powerlessness, that lack of connection, connects seamlessly to the more shadowy core of their psychology, as we'll see.
Once it's formed, the sovereign mindset is quite sturdy. Their psychology seems impervious to the perturbations of cognitive dissonance. The framework of their claims is both objectively faulty and yet, in their minds, internally logical -- at least superficially so. And superficial logic is good enough. It is comforting enough.
Sovereigns say they have no need of government. They seem to be the Amish of centralized societal engagement. And yet they use roads paid for by taxation; they use public water systems, and sewage treatment; they use public utilities and, indeed, they endlessly utilize the very court system they say is without validity. Few turn down Social Security if it is offered, or emergency services. If their house is on fire, they're likely to call the tax-supported fire department.
Sovereigns and other "freemen" radicals casually shrug off this innate contradiction with a chuckling "If it's there, Hell, I'll use it." In their minds, when they use public streets and traffic lights and ambulances, they're like undercover agents, spies for sovereign citizenry behind enemy lines.
Still, you'd think they'd feel the cognitive dissonance, on some level. But any possibility of self-knowledge seems driven out by the relentless spur of fear, and its endless reinforcement in extremist websites and gatherings. Over and over the voices intone, The government is going to take away what's yours; the government is a tool in a gigantic conspiracy...
These fringe theoreticians are superfluously different, and yet, under it all they're the same. Take that chillingly representative sample, Terry Nichols and Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City Bombers. Nichols was more squarely into the rhetorical dreamstate called the Sovereign Citizen movement, but McVeigh was more a general anti-government extremist, whose beliefs seem to have crystallized around a particularly jejune, badly written white supremacist novel, The Turner Diaries.
The gears of the Oklahoma City Bombers were not fixed to the same shafts -- but they meshed, those two, like cogs, and the clockwork of their bomb whirred inexorably to activation. They killed 168 people and injured 680 more.
The great lubricant for that ever-growing mechanism of madness is the Internet. Here on the web, cranks find one another and mesh on countless sovereign-tinged sites. Chemtrail obsessives snugly mesh with conspiracy theorists frightened of a New World Order; the NWO fanatics in turn mesh with the some of the more extreme Dominionists who are sure that the Anti-Christ is already working through the UN (and our diabolically black President) to usher in the reign of the Beast 666; Dominionists are positioned to interface with the racist Christian Identity church. Tea Party libertarians segue into any of the groups above, and they are all quite comfortable eating beef barbecue with declared sovereign citizens. All these crank subcultures overlap -- and it may be that the Sovereign Citizen ethos provides a kind of sticky web work of flaky reasoning to hold it all together.
But at bottom a shadowy core keeps fueling all these variations. A number of independent studies have confirmed contrasting neurological tendencies between liberals and conservatives. And we may assume the conservative tendency goes even more definitively for extremist, uber libertarian, hyper Tea Party conservatives such as Sovereign Citizens.
Two neurological studies in particular (Neurocognitive Correlates of Liberalism and Conservatism, 2007, and Political Orientations Are Correlated with Brain Structure in Young Adults, 2011) suggest that conservatives are more likely to have brains with overactive amygdala, inducing them process information using emotion before intellect.
Sovereign Citizens presumably have a truly hefty amygdala.
The brain, we're told, is in some respects "plastic" -- that is, it's malleable, and it shapes itself according to use. Near constant exposure to fear-based conspiracy-theory "information" on the Internet (and in pamphlets distributed at gun shows) reinforces pathways in the amygdala to such an extent that anxiety-ridden section of the brain tends to dominate all judgment. The emotion stimulated, over and over, is fear -- until most judgment becomes fear based: "Conservatives respond to threatening situations with more aggression... heightened sensitivity to emotional faces suggests that individuals with conservative orientation might exhibit differences in brain structures associated with emotional processing...this would make them less likely to lean towards change...Stability means more predictability, which means more expected outcomes, and less of a trigger for anxiety." (Chris Mooney, Discover magazine Sept, 2011)
Writing in Psychology Today, (August 29 2003), psychologist Michael Bader suggests that "feelings of helplessness and dependency can feel toxic" and frightening to the paranoic right-winger. Some would-be sovereign citizens may suffer from feelings of abandonment. As a result, they feel it is vital for them never to trust government, as government is, symbolically, another kind of parent. They even refer to "big daddy government," or to "suckling at the teat of big government."
Imagining themselves to be sovereign -- that is, independent, needing no one, a law unto themselves -- is a relief to the abandoned. They feel comforted, closeted away in that alternate reality. They feel safer that way -- so they happily engage in the complex yet contradictory and illogical contortions of sovereign citizen reasoning.
But feelings of helplessness never quite go away. They inevitably lead Sovereigns and their ilk into conflict with the wider world, which leaves them feeling cornered. Once the "paper terrorism" of challenges to the tax code is used up, the cornered sovereign citizen can turn to militias -- and militia violence.
Sovereign confrontations with police has led to numerous deaths. Not so long ago, in May 2010, a father and son, both fanatical Sovereigns, shot and killed two Arkansas police officers during a routine traffic stop. More recently the ditzy but heavily armed militia backing Cliven Bundy pointed loaded assault rifles at federal officers. Had the government not chosen to back off, a massacre could have been the bloody result.
Cliven Bundy's display of hardware was likely just the beginning. Because paper burns. And paper terrorism can catch fire.