How Do We Break the Cycle Of Political Violence?
When a guy shooting up a subway car is charged with terrorism but a group kills six people trying to end the rule of law in America isn’t, something is out of kilter. Congress must act
Terrorism is defined as using violence or the threat of violence to achieve political ends. Although the Brooklyn subway shooter has been charged with terrorism, we don’t yet know if he had any actual political goals or was simply mentally ill.
Ted Cruz was closer to the mark when he called the January 6th insurrectionists “terrorists” … at least until Tucker Carlson called him in for a spanking. No more of that kind of talk from Ted.
But it does raise an important question in this era of attempted bombings of the DNC and RNC, the siege of multiple state capitols, running campaign buses off the road, and armed groups roaming our city’s streets trying to pick fights with people they perceive as their political opponents:
How do we break the cycle of political violence?
When a nation begins the transition from a democratic republic to a fascist oligarchy the first step usually involves low-level violence, and the threat of violence, directed against those still embracing democracy.
The world saw this in the “March on Rome” in 1921 by Mussolini’s Blackshirts, his paramilitary force that, in its early days, was roughly analogous to today’s American Proud Boys or Three Percenters. Over the next 4 years, Mussolini was able to use their threats of violence so effectively to paralyze his political opposition with fear that, by 1925, Italy had become a one-party Fascist state.
Hitler followed a similar path, organizing his own rightwing volunteer paramilitary force known as the Brownshirts. Like Mussolini’s Blackshirts, their signature was violently breaking strikes, vandalizing the offices of competing political parties, and committing random acts of violence against people they perceived as leftists, gays, or Jews.
Political violence is the hallmark of fascist, neofascist and authoritarian political movements (on the right and left) as they rise to power, be it Pinochet in Chile, Franco in Spain, or, in modern times, the rise of Modi in India, Bolsonaro in Brazil, Orbán in Hungary and Duterte in The Philippines. Once they achieve power they continue to use violence and the threat of violence to hold power, like Putin in Russia.
When the insiders in the Trump campaign were plotting the “false electors” scheme that led straight to the January 6th attacks, they had already decided that violence — including the murder of the Vice President and Speaker of the House — was an acceptable risk to them.
After all, if they succeeded, they’d have control of the government itself and could prevent any investigation or prosecution of themselves, much like Hitler with the burning of the Reichstag. If they failed, Trump still had two months in office, which was plenty of time for him to arrange pardons (as he did for Flynn, Bannon and Stone, among others).
But there’s no specific federal law that covers political violence the way hate crimes legislation covers racial, religious and gender-based violence. And, given the echoes of the Blackshirts and Brownshirts in today’s political landscape, Congress should consider fixing that.
Violence against enslaved people and their descendants trying to achieve political power has been a hallmark of American politics from emancipation after the Civil War to this day. Congress finally decided to get serious about civil rights in the 1960s, but passing the Civil Rights Act didn’t put a stop to racially motivated violence.
In 1968 Congress passed the first hate crimes legislation, the Civil Rights Act, which defined as a hate crime any action that “willingly injures, intimidates or interferes with another person, or attempts to do so, by force because of the other person's race, color, religion or national origin.” In 1996, Congress added hate crime protections based on religion and the practice of religion with the Church Arson Prevention Act, and in 2009 the Hate Crimes Prevention Act included crimes directed at people because of “actual or perceived sexual orientation, gender identity, disability, or gender.”
None of these laws protect you from being attacked for your politics.
If you’re attacked in the streets because of the color of your skin, for holding hands with a same-sex partner, or for wearing a burka the federal government can add a “hate crime” designation to the charges drawn against your attacker and involve the feds. But if you’re attacked in the same way and place by the same person because you have a Biden bumper-sticker on your car, you’re out of luck.
Political violence typically starts small and builds until it reaches a point where either it succeeds in changing a nation’s political structures or is clamped down on and stopped. Europe struggled with this in the 1970s and 1980s with the Red Brigades, the Red Army Faction and ETA (among others). In each case, the violence ended when federal governments took it seriously and cracked down.
The first major eruption of political violence in America was Tim McVeigh’s 1995 bombing of the Federal Building in Oklahoma City, killing 168 people and injuring another 680. More recently, federal agents were assaulted without consequences by the Bundy family, which also seized federal property here in Oregon.
Ammon Bundy’s actions turned him into a minor celebrity in neofascist circles; embraced by many within the GOP, he flirted with a run for governor in Idaho earlier this year. Others have since attacked multiple state capitols and even plotted to kidnap a governor, in rehearsal for and leading up to the January 6th attack on the US Capitol.
The law enforcement arms of the federal government generally want to stay out of political fights. Politics, after all, is how we decide, create, and implement our laws; interference in politics by those charged with enforcing the laws could be extraordinarily problematic.
Legislating anything having to do with politics, particularly in the context of criminal law, has the potential to turn out really ugly; it’s essentially where both Hitler and Mussolini ended up by the 1930s.
But just like other types of escalations, hate crimes based on politics tend to accelerate until either the government reacts and cracks down or is seized by the group using violence itself. We also saw this in the 1930s in Germany and Italy.
As US District Judge Reggie Walton, a Bush appointee, said this week when sentencing a January 6th insurrectionist:
“I think our democracy is in trouble because, unfortunately, we have charlatans like our former president who doesn’t, in my view, really care about democracy but only about power.”
Whether America should add political violence to our existing hate crime laws, create a new category of political hate crime, or deal with our crisis of political violence in some other way is best left to a healthy debate within our legislative branch of government.
But when a guy shooting up a subway car is charged with terrorism, but a group kills six people and seizes the US Capitol while trying to end the rule of law in America isn’t, something is out of kilter. Congress must act.
The Hartmann Report is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
WARNING: The first comment is spreading false and dangerous pandemic disinformation!
Pretending that drivel from a right-wing website is a reliable source is the latest tell. https://mediabiasfactcheck.com/american-institute-for-economic-research/ Under a transparent guise of “fairness,” i.e., bothsidesism, red herrings, and false premise, there’s sure a lot of Sturm und Drang over Bill Gates, WHO, corporatism, bureaucracy, revolving door, and the kitchen sink, but not one peep about the staggering death toll, which woulda-coulda-shoulda been in the thousands instead of over a million.
Had the majority of Republicans listened to and acted upon the science behind Doctor Fauci rather than a power-hungry bullshit artist, how many of our loved ones would still be with us, laughing, crying, sharing... living?
But they don’t matter to pseudo intellectuals disseminating deadly propaganda. https://geniuswriter.net/what-is-a-pseudo-intellectual/ The lives of actual human beings become mere, throwaway talking points in the selfish, egocentric pursuit of a larger political agenda: tearing down the pragmatic institutions of responsible democracy, however flawed, and supplanting them with who knows what. Nothing good, that’s for sure! Some white man dystopian Jesusland that ain’t a people’s democracy!
How many more innocents must die at the hands of despicable liars before this dying democracy succumbs to the forces of authoritarianism? Will Americans fight like Ukrainians for truth, justice, and the TRUE American way — the SPIRIT behind the words of the Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and Bill of Rights?
Among so many other heavy responsibilities of leadership, our freely and fairly elected government representatives, and those they choose to fill positions, have a basic duty to protect the physical lives and wellbeing of citizens, visitors, asylum seekers, and other blood-and-flesh humans under their purview and auspices, which is everyone connected to the United States in some form or fashion, temporary or otherwise.
And so, the deadliest consequence of Trumpism buried by Republicans is worthy to repeat: The Party of Death could have prevented the biggest percentage of a million American COVID deaths! It's impossible to ignore that and remain intellectually honest.
After two years of the dire, predicted consequence coming true, where the blame squarely lies is no mystery. By not honoring the clear science, influential Republican politicians — indeed, their whole party and army of far-right media pundits enabling them — FAILED the American people because they FAILED to heed the hard-won, studied advice of an objective, nonpartisan, decades-long presidential advisor, an esteemed, credentialed doctor of science and one of the world’s leading pandemic experts.
Instead, those foolishly culpable of making the pandemic infinitely worse gobbled up the childish pablum of a failed reality star and one of the world’s worse liars. They crassly, shamelessly politicized a devastating worldwide pandemic by lusting after power, knowingly condemning to death, or to lifelong suffering, their own constituents and everyone around them, while disingenuously blaming their perceived mortal enemies, all those wicked liberals and Democrats and Satan worshippers.
But the real evildoers are Republicans and their assorted trolls. A faction of horrible liars accomplished their misdeeds by changing the story from a common-sense narrative about a tragic health crisis to an existential battle for “freedom,” from the pragmatic to the pull-it-out-of-your-butt, psychological fear of utter nonsense!
Changing the premise of this most consequential argument is perhaps the most egregious logical fallacy of all.
The "Bundy Rebellion" was astounding, in terms of what those insurrectionists were allowed to get away with. I will never forget the image of the guys flat, sniper-style on the bridge with their rifles trained on law enforcement. And the terrorism worked! The lawful authorities shuffled away with their tails between their legs, is how I remember it. One wonders, what if there had been determined enforcement on that occasion, would Ammon and the gang have been less empowered to violate laws later? Then try to picture that many armed black people gathered, with black guys laid flat on rooftops with sniper rifles trained on cops.....