Hungary experiments with a border militia

According to National Public Radio’s Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, Hungary is recruiting a citizen militia of so-called border hunters to patrol the nation’s frontier with Serbia. Recruits will be paid “the equivalent of $780 a month. . . more than junior teachers and doctors” and will be armed with “handguns, batons, and pepper spray.”

This will sound familiar to Americans, but first the context of contemporary Europe. Last year, the number of migrants to enter Europe was over one million, more than three times the totals of previous years. This year is on track to continue the recent trend. Nearly all come from Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria. Syria is in present crisis with hundreds of thousands dead, millions displaced, and many in need of food and medical care.

In those three examples, we have to acknowledge America’s measure of responsibility. We armed the Afghan defenders against the Soviet invasion, then turned our backs on them when the Russians left, allowing an opening for the disparate ethnic groups to settle scores, ultimately resulting in the rise of the Taliban. We supported Saddam Hussein when he was our bad guy, then acted surprised when he’d had enough of doing our bidding. In Syria, we’ve hesitated, drawing red lines and made promises, only to get involved without a clear goal or even an understanding of the parties involved. With a problem that we had a hand in creating, perhaps there’s sense in the people who are dealing with the consequences using our answers from an earlier time.

The concept of a citizen militia comes for us out of the culture of England, where for centuries, the people were expected to take an active role in maintaining social order and national defense. The latter part was much more pointed in Switzerland, a neutral country that has discouraged invasion from aggressive neighbors since 1815. But the idea of armed commoners has not been widely accepted in other European nations — except during times of emergency.

The trouble is that when groups arm during emergencies, there is a risk of vigilante justice. There have been reports of abuses occurring, and tension is high, considering the strain placed on Hungary’s resources.

The militia clause in the U.S. Constitution is debated endlessly in this country. Those of us who hold the individualist reading of the Second Amendment do not accept that the militia limits gun rights or that only people serving in the militia have the exercise of such rights. However, the phrase, well regulated, suggests an important caveat. Do militias exist to stand against federal power? Are militias the best means of protecting a nation against foreign invaders? In either case, they must be organized and trained. This is not only for their fighting potential, but also to instill the discipline necessary to prevent them from committing war crimes.

Gun ownership as an expression of national defense, citizen power, and individual rights is something that many in the United States have woven into our understanding of who we are, and if Europeans are coming around to this position, we can welcome them into our community. At the same time, we have to expect them to respect the rights of all, including those who are most vulnerable.

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