As if some evil kaleidoscopic genie were at work scrambling political stereotypes, a disturbing development occurred in Tennessee government this week that reversed the rhetorical clichés of three weeks ago, when legislative defenders of the Second Amendment seemed ready to storm the citadels of power over Governor Phil Bredesen’s veto of the guns-in-bars bill.
Secretary of State Tre Hargett, until recently a resident of Bartlett and a former state representative for that community, asked agents of the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation to investigate what he considered a “terrorist threat” against —well, it isn’t exactly clear whether Hargett felt himself threatened or was acting on behalf of Mark Goins, the new Republican-appointed state Election Commissioner.
In any case, the tables were turned, with the citadels of power suddenly arrayed, in the most concrete manner imaginable, against a citizen who apparently had done nothing more than make a literary allusion to something called the Battle of Athens. This was a McMinn County event of 1946 in which some World War II veterans took up arms against a corrupt local government and forced the honest counting of ballots in an election that was about to be stolen.
What happened was that activist Bernie Ellis, founder of the group Gathering to Save Our Democracy had written an extensive comment on the blog of Knoxville News-Sentinel Capitol Hill reporter Tom Humphrey. The comment concerned Humphrey’s coverage of legislative maneuvering that would ultimately fail (by a single vote) to postpone the implementation of the previously enacted Voter Confidence Act. That act mandates optical-scan voting in Tennessee elections next year in the interests of accuracy. Commissioner Goins had resisted the change-over, long sought by individuals and groups concerned about past irregularities in reporting vote counts.
This was the concluding paragraph of Ellis’s comment: “Thanks for continuing to cover this story. If your readers will email me (firstname.lastname@example.org), I will send them several handouts that document the misinformation campaign that is attempting to keep our elections unsafe and tamper-prone. We need to nip this nonsense in the bud, or we need another Battle of Athens (TN) — sooner rather than later.”
The next thing Ellis knew, he was visited at his Middle Tennessee farm by two agents of the TBI, who said they were there to investigate an emailed “terrorist threat’ made by Ellis against unnamed state officials. (A TBI spokesperson would later confirm the request for an investigation was made by Secretary of State Hargett.)
Ellis apparently had little difficulty convincing the TBI agents that (a) he had made no threat against anyone; and that (b) he had sent no email to Hargett’s office or any other organ of state government. The agents pronounced themselves satisfied and left the Ellis farm, but not without taking with them a written message for the complaining state official from Ellis.
The message read: "Mr. Ellis would like whoever issued the complaint against him to grow a pair of balls, 'man up' … and call him at any time to discuss any concerns they may have with him or with anything Mr. Ellis has ever said."
Thereupon the Battle of Ellis’ Farm ended without the firing of a single shot — a victory over state power, it would seem, in defense of the First Amendment which, in this case, had been exercised, in the most innocuous possible way, to refer to a long-ago circumstance involving the Second Amendment.
You just can’t make up stuff this good.