I’ve expressed two thoughts for many years, one mostly in private, and the second mostly in public at The Jeffersonian. The private prediction is that we face a period of extended turmoil, where turmoil generally covers an uncertain mix of revolt, violence, conflict and antagonism. Such civil conflict would hardly compare in scale or import with the sixties – that is, it would be more, not less consequential – and would present the country with problems and possibilities it has not dealt with before.
The second thought is part prediction, part admonition, but most significantly a caution about strategies for change. Violence does not work. In this context, the warning is a political principle just as much as it is a moral one, and in fact its truth in politics rests partly on warfare’s moral destructiveness. When you destroy a country’s moral foundation, and replace it with fear, you also destroy its ability to stand as an independent political entity, capable of self improvement.
I won’t analyze violence too extensively here. See Hannah Arendt, On Violence, for a full discussion. In current news, violence functions as a means of first resort for trigger-happy police, and for others who must feel that a gun gives them power. Here in The Jeffersonian, and in Revolution on the Ground, I have suggested that if our federal government does not reform, we must take it down and replace it, as Locke and Jefferson said we must when people who claim power exercise it illegitimately. The right of revolution, to be a right, must be exercisable.
Yet the whole project and process of civil resistance and revolution, so violence prone in history, has also failed repeatedly when civil conflict turns to civil war. When civil war breaks out because grievances go unaddressed, no plans for peaceful change have a chance. Moreover, violent change results in outcomes worse than society’s initial state, and it places people in power who act like criminals, because they are.
People like order and stability not only for its own sake. They know instinctively that survival itself comes into doubt when violence becomes too commonplace. Turmoil may lead to civil improvement, but only if it results from sound strategies of civil resistance. People who wield weapons to get their way, to punish or intimidate, or to exact revenge are generally not interested in change that creates or improves democratic institutions. If they plan carefully, they have a clear-eyed view of the connection between violence as a means and power as an end.
Advocates of non-violent, civil resistance don’t have a resounding voice at the moment. Use of firearms by police and others grabs attention. In light of that, our public discussions analyze violence in that context. I have advocated that citizens use their cell phones to record attacks and executions by police officers, who seem to consider the presence of an armed black male as either a mortal threat or a lynching opportunity. At the least, video recordings indicate police see encounters with black men as an opportunity to use the f-word aggressively, perhaps because that feels more acceptable in police culture than the n-word.
I did not predict long ago that the turmoil we would face, when it became open, would be racially based. After 9/11, one could not predict any specific outcomes. You could only make judgments about government actions related to the event and its aftermath. For instance, one could not predict specific outcomes of our disastrous invasion of Iraq. Nor could one predict specific outcomes of the financial panic that grew out of the country’s real estate bubble, a bubble that formed and then grew after the recession of 2001 – 2003.
With all that uncertainty, in the midst of social discontent and disorientation, legitimate grievances based on race have become one catalyst for open conflict. Police executions of black men are something everyone can understand. When a former soldier – trained in the use of weapons – retaliates, as one did in Dallas, people notice that, too. Violent conflict, especially conflict that results in death, compels our attention more than any other kind of human interaction. These events rocket to the top of our social consciousness.
Journalist Peggy Noonan at the Wall Street Journal writes column after column about the disturbing changes she observes in our country’s politics and culture. Many of her perceptions are correct, but I say to myself, she’s five years behind. Now I say, ten years. She remarks on ailments that have incubated for decades, and that became apparent in the social tension that followed 9/11. Corruption in the two major political parties is a simple example. Deterioration in their ability to lead, and their loss of integrity, has developed since at least the 1960s. To call attention to it now may be helpful, but we did not just wake up to it.
Gunning down police officers in Dallas is something we wake up to. The problems we currently have between police and citizens, black and white, did not originate last year or this year, nor do they originate with the victims of police violence. Police use of lethal force clearly exceeds any justification the police can offer. Nevertheless, if we cannot resolve these problems without murderous interactions between police and citizens, we will find them resolved with what amounts to low level warfare in our cities.
Violent tactics always have bad outcomes. You cannot say ends justify the means, because the ends are not good. You cannot justify coercive power based on intimidation that results from it. Significantly, in current debates about lethal force, government agencies and police forces show no willingness to give up their weapons. They continue their practice of shoot first when a black male is involved, as well as aggressive tactics against all races and classes. If these things continue, the taste of violence we first experienced on 9/11 may transmute – via social fear, hate, and even despair – into a destructive war of vengeful, grievance based killings fifteen years later.
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