Is political violence in the U.S. simply inevitable?
March 25, 2023
One reason I wrote my last book -- Love, Loss and Endurance: A 9/11 Story of Resilience and Hope in an Age of Anxiety -- was to explore the question of how people get sucked into extremism and what we might do about that.
That's why the last chapter contains several ideas for countering radicalism. And it's why I continue to worry about the various ways that extremist ideology can be found in our culture.
All of which is why I was attracted to the cover article in the current issue of The Atlantic, "The New Anarchy: America faces a type of extremist violence it does not know how to stop," by Adrienne LaFrance, executive editor of that venerable publication.
She takes a look at various periods of radicalism both in U.S. history and around the world, looking for clues not just about how extremism started but also how it eventually ended, if it did. It's well worth a read.
One piece of history she considers is the so-called anarchist period in the U.S. in the early 20th Century and the "Palmer Raids" that (illegally) tried to stop it.
LaFrance concludes with what she calls "the most important lesson" from this period: "Holding perpetrators accountable is crucial. The Palmer Raids are remembered, rightly, as a ham-handed application of police-state tactics. Government actions can turn killers into martyrs. More important, aggressive policing and surveillance can undermine the very democracy they are meant to protect; state violence against citizens only validates a distrust of law enforcement. But deterrence conducted within the law can work."
She also takes a look at the anti-government "Patriot" movement in the 1980s and '90s that "eventually led to deadly standoffs between federal agents and armed citizens at Ruby Ridge, Idaho, in 1992, and in Waco, Texas, in 1993. . .Those incidents stirred the present-day militia movement and directly inspired the Oklahoma City bombers, anti-government extremists who killed 168 people at the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in 1995."
She then notes that "the surge in militia activity, white nationalism and apocalypticism of the 1990s seemed to peter out in the early 2000s. This once struck me as a bright spot, an earlier success we might learn from today. But when I mentioned this notion to Carolyn Gallaher, a scholar who spent two years following a right-wing paramilitary group in Kentucky in the 1990s, she said, 'The militia movement waned very quickly in the 1990s not because of anything we did, but because of Oklahoma City. That bombing really put the movement on the back foot. Some groups went underground. Some groups dispersed. You also saw that happen with white-supremacist groups.'”
The Oklahoma City bombing, in other words, was so shocking and lethal that it seemed to send extremists at least temporarily back into the dark corners from which they had emerged.
But what's happened since then? LaFrance writes this: "A generation later, political violence in America unfolds with little organized guidance and is fed by a mishmash of extremist right-wing views. It predates the emergence of Donald Trump, but Trump served as an accelerant. He also made tolerance of political violence a defining trait of his party, whereas in the past, both political parties condemned it."
So are we doomed to more and more violence? Not necessarily. As LaFrance notes, "As violence increases, so does distrust in institutions and leaders, and around and around it goes. The process is not inevitable — it can be held in check — but if a period of bloodshed is sustained for long enough, there is no shortcut back to normal. And signs of decivilization are visible now."
What, then, is our task now? LaFrance puts it this way: "Ending political violence means facing down those who use the language of democracy to weaken democratic systems. It means rebuking the conspiracy theorist who uses the rhetoric of truth-seeking to obscure what’s real; the billionaire who describes his privately owned social platform as a democratic town square; the seditionist who proclaims himself a patriot; the authoritarian who claims to love freedom."
I trust each of those descriptions immediately brought a name to mind. The question now is how we face them down.
* * *
WHY HISTORIES SOMETIMES NEED A REVISED VERSION
When Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn and I were working on our 2009 book about how some non-Jews in Poland rescued Jews from the Holocaust, it was quickly clear that this was a complicated story far more nuanced than a simple case of good versus evil. We hope that we reflected that adequately in They Were Just People: Stories of Rescue in Poland During the Holocaust. Those complications came back to mind as I read this fascinating piece in The Tablet about a scholarly rethinking of the usual categories of "ordinary" Polish citizens in the Holocaust as victims, perpetrators or bystanders.
The author of the (long) article, Tomasz Frydel, insists that such an easy tri-part system obscures at least as much as it reveals, especially when it comes to the role historic antisemitism played as a motivating force for such so-called ordinary Poles. Frydel writes: "No doubt the system benefitted from antisemitism, but it was a sufficient, not a necessary, condition for participation. It only gets us so far in explaining why killing on the local level proceeded the way that it did."
These periodic reviews of human history are necessary and often important. Without them, we are likely to buy into stories that are monochromatic even as they seek to reflect a complex world in which simple answers distort complex truths. Sometimes that leaves us without clear answers. But in an often-ambiguous world, that may well be a more accurate picture of reality than the myths we tell about the boy George Washington chopping down a cherry tree or about happy slaves singing joyful songs on plantations in the South.