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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.

The classic children’s story begins, “A wild, ringing neigh shrilled up from the hold of the Spanish galleon.” “Misty of Chincoteague” is one of those books you really wanted to believe as a kid: A shipload of Moorish ponies destined for the New World founders in a storm off the Virginia and Maryland barrier islands. The author tells us that for centuries they roamed “free, free, free,” on Assateague and Chincoteague as “the ponies adopted the New World as their own.” Today, the ponies still roam the islands, wild as ever. Reinforcing the legend, there’s a lovely bronze statue of “Misty” in the heart of the town of Chincoteague.

The author of this charming children’s book, Marguerite Henry, assures us that “All the incidents in this story are real.” But they probably are not. There’s no evidence that a Spanish ship carrying ponies sank there. A better explanation, historians say, is that these horses represent the grand American traditions of tax evasion and rural lawlessness.

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Three hundred years ago, long before the Boston Tea Party, Virginia and Maryland farmers hid their horses on off-shore islands to avoid paying Colonial taxes on livestock. The pony herds eventually became feral. The historic lawlessness of Maryland and Virginia’s Eastern Shore is well documented in Charlton Ogburn’s Jr.’s classic, “The Winter Beach,” and James Michener’s novel “Chesapeake.”

Perhaps it would help to think of Chincoteague’s early Colonial tax dodgers as our bucolic pioneers in the disregard of the law – a tradition that still thrives. Fifteen percent of Americans admit they are likely to cheat on their taxes, according to a recent survey. Two-thirds of that group are men, mostly young and single. And nearly half say they are one paycheck away from financial disaster.

Increasingly, and not just in the tax arena, it seems Americans are looking at a distressed moral landscape, which often takes form as local poverty and blight.

Rural crime and lawlessness

Traditionally, it is cities that have been viewed as centers of crime and lawlessness, but that is somewhat misleading. “One of the least understood topics in the field of criminology and criminal justice is that of rural crime,” wrote Joseph Donnermeyer, a professor of rural sociology at Ohio State University and director of the national rural crime prevention center, in 1995.

Rural Americans – and the politicians who patronize them – have promoted the idea that they are the nation’s upholders of righteousness, morality, and virtue. But this agrarian myth conveniently ignores our rustic romance with rural crime, from Bonnie and Clyde and John Dillinger to moon-shiners, the Ku Klux Klan, and marijuana farming.

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.

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.

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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.