“There were two ‘Reigns of Terror,’” Mark Twain wrote of the French Revolution. “The one wrought murder in hot passion, the other in heartless cold blood; the one lasted mere months, the other had lasted a thousand years; the one inflicted death upon ten thousand persons, the other upon a hundred millions; but our shudders are all for the ‘horrors’ of the minor Terror, the momentary Terror.” Perhaps the saints in heaven know that the blood spilled at Blair Mountain could not be pardoned, but they would judge the perpetrators of exploitation, too. They would see not only the five days of battle but also the evictions and assassinations and theft carried out for years against the residents of company towns. The mine operators broke men’s backs in exchange for a pittance; they left families to die in the cold. It is easier to declare a moral prohibition on political violence when your children are not starving.What the progressives still do not understand is that they are the oppressors. The violence by striking miners 90 years ago was not sanctioned. The violence in Ferguson, at immigration centers, at airports, in DC, in Berkeley is state sanctioned. The state doesn't drop the hammer on these protests. Berkeley thought better of ruining the script and dropped charges against Based Stick Man.
...If unsanctioned violence is the product of intolerable pressure, does sanctioned violence deserve to even share a name with it? There is no identifiable pressure behind nor any clear prohibition in the way of the sanctioned violence that constitutes the vast majority of the world’s political violence and which is itself the very cause of grinding pressure in individual lives. Anarchists burn limos because limo owners burn the planet. The miners strike because the company robs and breaks them. The streets of Ferguson explode because the city of Ferguson loots and kills the streets.
What is so terribly difficult to understand about the clutched pearls of our present day is how readily those most eager to condemn the incivility of burning cars and punches overlook the most basic fact about their home. This is America. We do not resolve our disagreements with debate here; we do not respect all views, settle differences at the ballot box, and live calm and dutiful in civil peace except when we are interrupted by callous and unjustifiable outbursts of violence. The continent was cleared by guns and smallpox, the nation built up by the whip. A police baton and a jail cell prop up our civil life, and this is not simply a matter of who struck first. Political violence is a violation of our status quo, even one indulged by “both sides” of some political struggle. It is the essential mechanism. We have been examining what we took to be a feature of the landscape but instead discovered a foundation, deep and essential to the stone.
Somewhere between sanctioned and unsanctioned brutality, there is a liminal kind, officially condemned but operating in the service of sanctioned power. What are we to make of it? Two men beat an immigrant on the street, “making America great again.” George Zimmerman stands his ground. Dylann Roof walks into a church in Charleston, South Carolina, and murders nine people in prayer. If we are speaking of political violence today, then surely these right-wing acts are among its most visible terrors, but how can they be classified?People wonder why progressivism is collapsing.
Zimmerman stood trial. Roof was even found guilty and will be put to death. In the strict sense, lynching was never entirely legal, but if we attempt to call it unsanctioned, to make hate crimes commensurable with strikes and slave revolts, our conscience invariably rises up to contradict us. If neo-Nazis burn down the block, their riot is not Martin Luther King’s language of the unheard. The right-wing killer operates outside the strict boundary of the law but in accordance with the structure of power. He is not rising up against his oppressor. He is beating and killing those over whom he already has dominion.
It would insult the intelligence of evil men to say that they do not understand this, that they are not, at least, cognizant on some level that they do not risk life and limb quite so fully as violent actors on the left. Although many may be suffering in their own ways, growing restless under the strain of economic and demographic forces they do not fully understand, their violence is not the result of intolerable pressure; if it honors the seriousness of its commissioner’s circumstances at all, it honors only a sublimation. Neither unsanctioned nor sanctioned, this liminal violence is a third kind, the unsanctioned violence of pure will. Its actors see a world slipping away or changing, a state insufficiently committed to their preferences. Their violence is political, but it is not for or against official power. It is for their own power, of which there is never enough.
Politics are the channels of power, and violence is the byproduct of their imbalance. The world changes violently, and violently it tries to hold itself together. It works toward equilibrium but cannot find it. Power breeds violence in its obligations and in its absence, in the lust it inspires within the wicked and the yearning it summons in the oppressed. The question is not how politics became violent. It is whether we can conceive of a world where it is not. We’ve never seen one. The world is not as it should be, and the chasm grows wider with every tectonic upheaval; the problem of political violence, then, is the problem of turning continental plates. Is this an impossible task? If it is not, then we have our final question: What is to be done?