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Lessons from July 4 attack 30 years ago

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Much is made of the animosity and political divisions among Americans on this July 4th. Government and leaders are disdained by many, considered incompetent and unresponsive by others, and not trusted seemingly by a majority.

It is the right of every American to dislike, even protest, over their government. But there are boundaries. Many worry now about violence amid statements by the president dating back to his campaign and more recent calls by his opponents to openly harass government officials.

The danger of festering dislike for government and the extremes to which it can lead was never more apparent than on this date 30 years ago in Orangeburg.

That Independence Day, a heavily armed man drove a truck loaded with gasoline into the Orangeburg-Calhoun Law Enforcement Complex, sparking a gun battle and fire that wounded four officers and nearly destroyed the facility. Four deputies were wounded. The attacker survived.

Clyde Burdell Myers of Branchville, now deceased, told The Times and Democrat nine years later he was "standing up for my civil rights" when he crashed the truck through the LEC sally port, poured gasoline onto the floor of the facility, set fire to it and engaged in a 20-minute gun battle with law enforcement.

As noted in a T&D Sunday story, Myers was no stranger to authorities. In 1982, he staged a protest sit-in at Family Health Centers for several hours. In 1985, he shackled himself to a chair in protest during a county council meeting. In early 1988, Myers got into a dispute with Orangeburg County over a road adjoining his property, and he was arrested for malicious injury to county property. Myers said the arrest led him to retaliate by attacking the LEC.

The 1997 interview reinforced the reality of a man willing to take extreme action to stand up for what he perceived to be right and for his rights as an American. A willingness to fight for one's rights is at the very foundation of our nation, yet so too is a system of laws that establishes one's rights stopping where they infringe on another's.

Therein was the contradiction of Myers, a man willing to die to make law enforcement and government pay a price for the way he was treated in an earlier protest -- a man who seemed unaware of the innocent people who might have died had his plan succeeded fully on July 4, 1988.

For government officials, public servants and even those who simply must deal with the public daily, there is the sobering reality that the way they do their jobs -- or importantly, the way they don't in some instances -- could have such a devastating impact. Myers believed his attack on the law complex was justified and said he did not regret it.

Had his plan of July 4, 1988, succeeded with the explosion of 500 gallons of gasoline inside the sally port at the LEC, not only Myers but dozens of law enforcement officers and prisoners housed in the detention center might have died. There even would have been a real threat to residents nearby.

Too many parallels should not be drawn between an incident such as the LEC attack and the nasty political discourse of 2018, but the wrongness of using violence to settle a score with people and/or their government is clear. This is America, where we have many avenues of protest and recourse -- unlike people in so many places around the globe.

Taking the law into your own hands is not among our rights as Americans.

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