Tennessee State Rep. Justin Pearson speaks to a crowd of supporters outside of the Vasco A. Smith Jr. County Administration Building, Wednesday, April 12, 2023. Credit: Patrick Lantrip / AP

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Frederic B. Hill of Arrowsic was a foreign correspondent for The Baltimore Sun and director of wargaming exercises on national security issues for the Department of State. He is a graduate of Bowdoin College.

The arrest of a Wall Street Journal correspondent by Russia’s Vladimir Putin and the expulsion of a black member from the Tennessee Legislature share a common thread: Both young men are recent graduates of Bowdoin College.

But both cases share a far more critical and menacing thread now endangering democracy across the world: Fear of dissent and the brutal use of power to silence brave efforts to promote justice and truth.

Russia, under Putin, has a grave problem: It has conducted a barbaric war against an independent country, Ukraine, in the first aggression of its kind since Hitler’s Germany tried to take over western Europe. And his once-vaunted military is performing poorly. Killing men, women and children, kidnapping thousands of the latter, Putin has declared criticism of his atrocities as treason and moved to silence those who have sought to report the reality of his bloodlust.

Tennessee, like most of the entire United States, has a grave problem – an equally national crisis that Republican party leaders in Tennessee refuse to recognize: The proliferation of guns and use of military-style weapons to murder men, women and children. Rather than take action to limit the spread of guns, which have led to massacres including the death of six people in Nashville last month, these Tennessee politicians prefer to silence young, elected members of the legislature who demand action.

Enter Justin Pearson and Evan Gershkovich, who graduated from Bowdoin  in 2017 and 2014 respectively.

The mass shooting in Nashville, which killed three 9-year-old children and three adults, set the stage for this last protest. Pearson and two colleagues in the Tennessee House of Representatives led a protest to demand legislative action to limit gun violence. The Republican leaders, however, expelled the recently elected Pearson and another young black member for their “lack of decorum.” Both men have been returned to the Tennessee House by local commissions.

The GOP House leader even likened their protest to the Jan. 6, 2021 attack on the Capitol in support of Donald Trump’s lies about the 2020 election.

One would think all members of the Tennessee legislature would be sympathetic to the groundswell of protest from people and their demands for stricter gun control measures.

Yet Republicans in Congress and across the country, mostly in red states, continue to vote against reasonable measures to ban the AR-15 guns and other non-hunting weapons often used in the wave of massacres in the U.S.

The Biden administration has repeatedly called for tougher gun control measures. But Republican members of Congress, and some Democrats, continue to block major reforms despite strong public support for tougher measures.

It is hardly surprising that this happened in Tennessee. The state has a dark history of racism and backwardness.

The president who pursued racist policies, effectively continuing slavery during Reconstruction, was Abraham Lincoln’s successor, Andrew Johnson — of Tennessee. The Ku Klux Klan was founded in Tennessee. The state was the site of the so-called “monkey” trial in 1925 of a teacher who taught evolution, as against Christian fundamentalism. Martin Luther King was assassinated in Memphis in 1968.  

Evan Gershkovich, the son of Soviet-era parents, was not even protesting Putin’s war. Like any good journalist, he was seeking information to report the realities of war and its impact within Russia where Putin has throttled domestic news coverage and jailed dissidents. Gershkovich was arrested and accused, with no evidence, of spying.

Putin is, many analysts say, more interested in seizing a hostage to exchange for a Russian than blocking Gershkovich’s reporting. Yet his actions highlight the abuse of power to carry on an unjust and merciless war.

Putin would have been far more intelligent to have read some of Gershkovich’s reporting from Russia, as Bret Stephens of The New York Times wrote last week. Gershkovich filed several stories that would have given the Russian dictator a much clearer picture of his military’s failures than he was receiving from his sycophantic generals. He might have learned why thousands of young Russians fled the country when he tried to ramp up a draft.

“Putin has no independent sources of reliable information,” Stephens wrote.

“Like despots through the ages, he listens only to people who tell him what he wants to hear,” he added.

Republican leaders of the state of Tennessee and a Russian president remain mired in ancient prejudices, authoritarian control and a blind readiness to suppress reality.