Nathan Wooten has a portrait of Adolf Hitler hanging in his living room. He named his son after a leader of the German S.S. He regularly posts comments on National Socialist message boards and created a personal profile on a white supremacist social networking site. Beyond any shadow of a doubt, Wooten is a neo-Nazi.
Until last month, he was also a sergeant in the Missouri National Guard.
Some quick context:
- Wooten's superiors had been aware of his neo-Nazi affiliation for almost a full year, not acting upon this information until it was leaked to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. In early 2011, three of Wooten's colleagues reported that he was openly professing racist views to them.
- His behavior was in clear violation of military regulations, which explicitly forbid its members from getting involved with groups that "actively advocate supremacist doctrine, ideology, or causes."
- The military's tardiness in dealing with Wooten isn't exactly standard practice when it comes to their handling of personnel who get mixed up in politics. Back in January, an Army reservist named Jesse Thorsen appeared in uniform at a Ron Paul rally to endorse the libertarian congressman. As the Associated Press reports, "the military's reaction was swift" when they heard about this, since soldiers are prohibited from appearing at political functions in uniform or making public political speeches (although they are allowed to vote and attend rallies). Thorsen was punished with a formal reprimand, one that will likely inhibit his chances of advancing through the ranks in the future.
There have been other recent instances in which the military encountered controversy due to the ideological views of its members: Gary Stein, the Marine Corps Sergeant who created a Tea Party page on Facebook, said he would refuse to follow President Barack Obama's orders if he disagreed with them; Major Nidal Malik Hasan, the Fort Hood shooter, had repeatedly advocated violence against Americans prior to his bloody rampage, although the military failed to act when they heard about it; and intelligence expert Craig Baxam was arrested after his efforts to assist a Somali affiliate of Al Qaeda were discovered. On each of these occasions, however, the ultimate problem was not the political views of the soldiers, but rather the fact that they had openly declared either a willingness to insubordinate their commander-in-chief (Stein) or sympathy for America's avowed enemies (Hasan, Baxam). As such, their situations are not comparable to those of Wooten and Thorsen, for whom their expression of certain political beliefs is the primary matter at issue.
The key difference is that the military was wrong for what it did to Thorsen. It is unrealistic to claim that a soldier who has one set of political opinions is incapable of effectively serving citizens with differing views, since by that logic all soldiers would be required to abandon their Constitutional right to free political thought upon enlisting. While it makes sense to prevent soldiers from adopting or advocating philosophies that will (a) undermine their ability to perform their duties as required and/or (b) render them unable or unwilling to respect and protect all of their fellow citizens equally (see Stein, Hasan, and Baxam), it is absurd to argue that those requirements are violated by simply supporting an ordinary political candidate, be it Ron Paul or anyone else. Similarly, while the military has the right to demand that its members not claim that their personal political views represent the ideas of the institution as a whole, it is ridiculous to claim that a soldier who simply makes his occupation known while espousing certain beliefs -- be it by wearing a uniform or actually stating his vocation -- is implicitly conflating his individual perspectives with those of his larger organization. Unless he directly makes that claim, the institution entrusted with defending our Constitution should always err on the side of guaranteeing the rights prescribed in that document to its personnel.
I anticipate that these views may surprise some of my regular readers, given that I have written editorials in the past criticizing Ron Paul for his misrepresentation of Constitutional history and urging his supporters to avoid the dangers of dogmatism (I also noted that white supremacists are a part of Ron Paul's coalition, although they are far from being a majority within it). Nevertheless, they must remember that true progressives place a high premium on the integrality of freedom of thought, one best captured in the writings of Voltaire (one of my favorite authors) and summarized by the aphorism of his biographer, Evelyn Beatrice Hall:
"I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it."
The protection to which Thorsen is entitled, however, does not apply to Wooten. Subscribing to neo-Nazi political views is not the same as believing in libertarianism (like Thorsen), progressivism, centrism, or conservatism. While those ideologies may have wildly different positions on important policy questions, none of them inherently relegate any class of citizens to a status of basic civic inferiority. Neo-Nazis, on the other hand, do not respect the human rights of African Americans, Asians, Hispanics, Jews, and other ethnic groups they deem to be "lesser." Consequently, a neo-Nazi like Wooten cannot be reasonably expected to do the duties he owes to all his fellow citizens, which disqualifies him from military service on a fundamental level. Even worse, because his responsibilities as an honor guard involve being a physical symbol of American values at the funerals of deceased servicemen, it is downrighting insulting to World War Two veterans to have them posthumously honored by a man who openly reveres the tyrant they risked their lives to topple. As such, it was unconscionable for Wooten's superiors to knowingly allow him to remain in service, especially in light of how other officers immediately punished Thorsen for an offense that was, at the very least, far lesser in scope (assuming one even believes that it should be an offense in the first place). A public accounting of their decisions must be made, with jobs lost if the justifications are shown to be inadequate.
I won't offer any hypotheses as to why Wooten received superior treatment than Thorsen, since intelligent speculation is impossible without firsthand access to the private documents issued at the time on those subjects. Instead I will conclude with a personal confession: I am far from unbiased when it comes to discussions of neo-Nazis. When I read about someone like Nathan Wooten, I am reminded of a 12-year-old boy who nearly lost his life in an anti-Semitic hate crime, one in which his peers tried to drown him in a lake while chanting "Drown the Jew!" Before that incident, he had schoolmates confront him with the charge that he worshipped Satan, inform him that he wasn't allowed to play with them because their parents didn't want Jews in their homes, show him swastikas that they had drawn on their binders and carved into their desks for his consumption, and pelt him with coins as a particularly cruel way of mocking the stereotype of Jewish greed.
That young man, as you may have already guessed, was me. I learned many things from that ordeal, but foremost among them was the knowledge that -- while I may disagree with individuals like Jesse Thorsen -- there is a fundamental difference between opinions that differ from my own and ones that imperil my very existence. Nathan Wooten's beliefs fall into the latter category, and people who share them have no place in positions of power or influence in any free society.