Thursday, August 20, 2009

A History of Violence

I applaud E.J. Dionne's column this morning in the Post for saying enough with the gun-toting posturing occurring at presidential town halls and other political events. There clearly is an element of intimidation in these kinds of displays, although I take it to be more juvenile and jackbooted -- like the puffed-up security guard impressed with his own faux sense of authority.

Dionne invokes the history of other moments of political violence, including lynching, to good effect. But his argument that "violence and the threat of violence have always been used by those who wanted to bypass democratic procedures and the rule of law" simply isn't true. Our history of political violence is, in fact, much deeper than the night riders of Reconstruction or the lynch mob. Violence was used by American citizens in support of the rule of law and with the consent of government. Vigilantism, historians of the concept argue, was actually an extension of state power that governments allowed to make up for the limits of their own policing abilities. Many Americans have seen preserving a conservative definition of "law and order" as part of their duties as good citizens. They perpetrated heinous acts of violence either in cooperation with state authorities or with their tacit approval.

During World War I Americans used a variety of forms of physical intimidation to control the terms of wartime political discourse. While the most notorious of these instances -- the lynching of German-American Robert Prager for what his Illinois neighbors perceived to be his disloyalty -- was rejected by President Wilson explicitly, the idea that Americans should compel their fellows into being loyal was not. Theodore Roosevelt ran around the country suggesting disloyalists be dealt with forcefully before the United States even entered the war. After war was declared citizens made others to kiss the flag to prove their loyalty and paraded suspected German sympathizers through the streets for public derision and a good egging.

Governments and corporations allowed citizens to help quell strikes, particularly after the Bolshevik Revolution cast labor organizing in a new light. Veterans in the American Legion thought it their patriotic duty to clobber striking steel mill employees and auto workers. Ford's private security branch recruited groups with fascist aspirations -- real Nazis, not those Obama supports -- to do the same during the Depression.

Between the wars conservative citizens used violence to disrupt speeches and mass rallies they found objectionable, often as the police looked on. Merely denouncing militarism or claiming union membership was consistent with the principles of the Declaration of Independence was enough to get one whisked away, thrown in a car, and driven to the dusty edge of town for a long walk back to civilization.

Of course, during the Civil Rights Movement white terror groups like the Klan used bombings and assassination to intimidate and silence anti-segregation activism. Mississippi operated more or less as a police state, one in which citizens happily turned in others for being suspected members of the NAACP.

I raise this history to make the point that things have been way worse in our fairly recent past and we should not feed a few Ron Paul supporters' sense of self-satisfaction so easily. Democracy will endure. It didn't happen here.

I am much more afraid of those people who are not showing up at Tea Bagger rallies or town halls. It isn't worth it to them even to make a gun-spangled spectacle of themselves. Those people have given up on politics, on democracy, on this country entirely. Those kinds of attitudes are the dark heart of a fascist. And they wear their "Tree of Liberty" t-shirts only after their bombs have gone off. That's why the people mugging for the cameras that Dionne is talking about need to knock it off.

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