The Wisconsin State Journal has a feature called Odd Wisconsin, stories collected at the state historical society. I have always thought the far right wingers zealotry for war and their crazy attacks on Democrats advocating peace was way over the top, but after reading the following “Mob Rule Crushes Conscience” account from 1918, in some ways we might not have it as bad…yet.
On Sept. 14, 1918, 200 people surrounded the Clark Co. home of Mrs. Caroline Krueger and her sons, who refused to serve in the First World War. "They said that if the war was in this country they would be among the first to volunteer," reported a neighbor. "They declared however that it was not right to send American soldiers to France and that they never would go."
The family was known for its religious and pacifist views, but that didn't restrain a mob of patriotic citizens. When the boys refused to respond to their draft notice, deputies tried to arrest them and a shootout followed, in which a local man was killed. The mob assembled, hundreds of bullets were poured into the Krueger home, one of the sons was shot through both legs, and the family barn was burned down to smoke out the others. A week later a posse killed the only son who had escaped in a nearby haystack (later refuted, family claimed he was alive and another victims body was buried in his place).
When officials entered the farmhouse after the violence, they found an American flag mounted above the hearth. Although Wisconsin sentiment was deeply divided at the start of the First World War, and elected officals including Sen. Bob LaFollette opposed American entry (for which he was vilified), popular opinion soon crystallized behind the troops after the U.S. took the side of Britain and France.
Wisconsin residents who maintained their opposition, such as the Kruegers, or who simply had ties to Germany, such as this Northland College professor who was tarred and feathered, found no safety in the so-called rule of law. The beliefs and opinions of a majority -- especially when backed by widespread fear, ignorance, and delusion -- can quickly become a law unto themselves. Mass hysteria that persecutes non-believers and burns books in the street is the frequent outcome.
We like to think that we ourselves would not behave this way, and that our times are more tolerant and civilized. But in every historical era there are thoughts that cannot be uttered, opinions that inflame the majority and individuals who are persecuted and scapegoated. In a democracy, we each have an obligation to try to think clearly and keep our balance.