What does the dictionary say about treason? The definition you’ll find online is interesting: treason is the crime of betraying one’s country, especially by attempting to kill the sovereign or overthrow the government. This definition immediately raises a fundamental issue: why is that a crime? Why is the attempt to replace your government even called a betrayal? Who would call it that, except a government that does not want to be replaced?

Let’s consider the question briefly. We know that attempting to kill the sovereign is already a crime, because any attempt at murder is a criminal act. Attempting to overthrow the government is necessarily not a crime because we have a natural right of revolution. Replacing one’s government cannot be a crime any more than exercise of any other natural right. The natural rights laid down in our Declaration of Independence are inalienable. No authority can take them away.

“That’s naive,” says the legal expert. “Replacing one’s government by means of revolution has to be a crime. Overthrow of constitutionally established authority is a violent act. Violence of this type is always outside the law.”

This befuddled, arrogant legal expert elicits two replies. First, as noted above in reference to an attempt on the sovereign’s life, violence used to accomplish any aim is already against the law. You need not add the crime of treason to a violent act, merely because the actor intends to overthrow the government. That is, you need not add the crime of treason unless you want to magnify the criminal import of this particular type of violent act.

The second reply is even more obvious than the first. To replace one’s government, or to attempt to do so, is not necessarily a violent act. The violence that usually follows from such an attempt is generally initiated by authorities that resist replacement. In a movement that has a good chance at success, violence does not typically spring from the protesters. It does not originate with individuals or groups who resist authority in order to exercise their right of revolution.

The example before the world now is Syria, where protesters disavow violence even as government tanks bombard their cities, rooftop shooters and artillery crews slaughter civilians by scores and hundreds, and security goons round up anyone they can lay their hands on to imprison and torture them. If you ever want to see an example of peaceful citizens who simply want to exercise their right to be free, look to Homs.

Established power does not give way voluntarily, nor does it stand down under pressure. We saw this pattern in the United States during the 1960s. Existing authorities did not respond to the civil rights movement peacefully. The Klan and other local authorities in the south lynched people to punish and intimidate blacks. They burned down churches because churches were centers of the civil rights movement. As in Syria, so-called police officers beat and imprisoned protesters by the scores. Unlike Syria, the perpetrators of state initiated violence in the south had no tanks at their disposal.

Tomorrow, we distinguish between country and government as we discuss the meaning of treason. We have to make this distinction to understand why we call treason a betrayal. For instance, suppose a citizen guides an invading army to help it conquer his fellow citizens. That’s betrayal.

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