In his 21st and latest book, A Necessary Evil, Pulitzer prize-winning historian Garry Wills offers a thought-provoking framework for understanding Americans' pervasive distrust of their government. Wills's survey extends from the earliest debates surrounding adoption of the Constitution to the 1998 Birmingham, Alabama, clinic bombing. Reviews of the Constitution and Bill of Rights exhibit the tight reasoning of legal briefs. But Wills notes that the distinction between powers and rights is much more than semantic and attributes confusion about (or convenient misreading of) this central tenet to myths that have been accepted as truisms for two centuries. He contends that while governments can possess powers, only individuals have rights. According to Wills, a close reading of the articles as originally expressed by the framers suggests that the government's three unequal branches were created for efficiency, not as checks on one another. Equally telling, gun rights were directed toward maintenance of state militias as part of the debate about a standing army. Wills also offers alternative interpretations of Madison's intent to those taken by modern gun groups.

A Necessary Evil explores a spectrum of protests, from nation-rending acts of secession (the Civil War) to civil disobedience (Martin Luther King Jr.) Wills establishes the differences between insurrectionists (those who claim the government does too much) and vigilantes (those who say it does too little) as the extreme manifestations of distrust. He observes that, despite high visibility, such modest responses as nullification (Oliver North, Bernard Goetz) or withdrawal (Thoreau, Mencken) seek very different federal responses. Nullifiers want to send a message to the government regarding a larger issue; withdrawers seek only to remove themselves from the government's objectionable laws. The history presented here reveals that violent and passive protests against government policies have been largely unsuccessful. Rather than considering government a necessary evil, Wills finds it to be, on balance, a necessary good. A Necessary Evil confirms that the system conceived by the government's founders still offers avenues open to those seeking redress the cup is half full, not half empty as portrayed by those who would subvert it. ¦ John Messer once served in the Pentagon.

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