My Little Visit from the FBI

So one small postscript from my “No Quarter November” remains necessary. I did want to share with you all that my month-long adventure in blogging without brakes did garner me a visit from the FBI. It was not as exciting as it sounds, but it was noteworthy, and worthy of a few follow-up observations.

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What happened was this. A few weeks ago, I got a call from an FBI agent (apparently on the road) to see if I would be in my office later that afternoon. I acknowledged that I would be, and we arranged a time. At that arranged time, two field agents showed up, very personable, professional and polite. As far as I knew, it could be anything from running a security check on someone who had me down as a reference to hauling me off for thought crimes against our Brand New Republic.

I asked them if I should have a colleague sit in, and they said that would not be necessary. So then, we sat down, and though I may not have looked like I was all agog, I was all agog on the inside. Imagine my delight when it turned out that our topic was “No Quarter November,” specifically the first post in that series, and more specifically than that, the first paragraph in that post. As you may recall, the title of that post was “Burn All the Schools.” And here is the offending paragraph.

H.L. Mencken once suggested a shrewd educational reform that has somehow not caught on. He said that there was nothing wrong with our current education establishment that could not be fixed by burning all the schools, and hanging all the teachers. Now some might want to dismiss this as an extreme measure, but visionaries are often dismissed in their own day. “You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one . . .”

Not only did I get visited by the FBI for my November blogging, but I didn’t even get to the second paragraph of November without attracting attention.

I am piecing together what must have happened, and here is my theory. Believe it or not, some people who read this blog are not exactly big fans of mine, and when they read this veiled “threat” of violence against our schools (in a world where many a bedlamite has actually shot up a school), they got all whizzed up, as non-fan readers of this blog are wont to do. And then, at some point in their emotional festivities, somebody decided it was necessary to call the FBI.

As I already mentioned, the agents were professional—they had read the blog post in question, but needed to circle back around to ask me something along the lines of that was a joke, right? But more than that was going on with their in-person visit. Behind the simple question about the Mencken quote was also the need to see with their own eyes what kind of operation we had. Our church offices are professional, with an actual receptionist and everything, my office has actual books on the shelves, and they could ascertain for themselves that I do not have three heads, with two of them drooling.

The whole exchange didn’t take very long. They didn’t apologize for checking up on my joke, nor should they have, and I didn’t apologize for making the joke, and so the situation was entirely resolved. Our public schools are safe. Well, actually, let me correct that. Our public schools are safe from me. They are manifestly not safe from the people running them, but that has been a standing problem for some generations now.

So what are my take-away observations from all of this? I have just a couple.

The first is that we can see yet another example of the ongoing weaponization of our intelligence and law enforcement agencies. What is happening all the time in Washington these days—hugger mugger stuff under both definitions—is spreading. What is happening in Washington—can you say Russia, Russia, Russia?—is extending out to the hinterlands. What used to be mere political differences, or perhaps differences over appropriate rhetorical voltages, are in the process of being criminalized.

Low-budget adversaries can make a complaint to an agency with considerably more resources than they have, and if the allegation is sensitive or lurid enough, that agency feels compelled to protect itself by “making sure” there is nothing to it. This kind of thing has happened to me before—I was the subject of a six-month investigation by the Attorney-General’s office here in Idaho, and all on the basis of a complaint from an aggrieved and singularly ill-informed citizen. An amusing story is to be had about all that, with links provided here and here.

Someone might respond that schools really do get shot up, and so if you “see something, say something.” This response reminds me of the old children’s joke, which asks what the difference between a hippopotamus and a mailbox might be. When the “I don’t know” answer comes back, the punch line is, “Well, I am not going to send you to mail any letters.”

A second point is worth making about all of this. There are two kinds of Christian leaders in the world, dividing them broadly into two camps. Mention that someone has gotten a visit from the FBI on the basis of something he said in a sermon, on a podcast, on his blog, or in the church newsletter, and Christian leaders will sort themselves out accordingly. One group shakes the head disapprovingly, worried about the testimony, and what does this do to the good reputation among outsiders (1 Tim. 3:7)? The second kind of Christian leader hears of something like this, and his heart sinks. “Why can’t something like that ever happen to me?” And his wife says, “Honey, don’t . . .”

One kind of Christian leader thinks that it is an honor to be honored. The other believes that it is an honor to be dishonored, a grace to be disgraced. There is obviously more to it, but that basic division explains a lot of other things too.

Now someone might be ready with a quick comeback. “Yeah, Wilson, but you didn’t get visited by the FBI because of Jesus. You got visited because you quoted that old reprobate Mencken.”

To which I reply that perhaps a lot more pastors ought to be quoting Mencken.