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Our Country's Violence Problem

Alt-right and hard-left violence is a troubling trend.

Copyright © 2024 by Ari Armstrong
This article originally was published on August 30, 2020, at Contours of Liberty, and ported here on May 18, 2024.

"That awkward period in Weimar Republic history, when Fascists and Communists were fighting in the streets to gain power." Unfortunately, anyone who watches the news in the U.S. does not need to ask, in response to Paul Hsieh's Tweet, "What about it?"

On the "left" (understanding the terms "right" and "left" are troublesome), a Black Lives Matter speaker said he was ready to put police officers "in their graves" and burn down more buildings. (I definitely don't want to ignore or downplay the fact that most recent protesters have been peaceful in their intent and actions.)

NPR published a friendly and lengthy interview with Vicky Osterweil, author of a new book titled, In Defense of Looting. In the interview, Osterweil also defends rioting. Her analysis is rooted in straight-up Marxist delusions: "[Looting] also attacks the very way in which food and things are distributed. It attacks the idea of property. . . . And the reason that the world is organized that way, obviously, is for the profit of the people who own the stores and the factories. So you get to the heart of that property relation, and demonstrate that without police and without state oppression, we can have things for free." Sure, without all those evil business owners, we could all have our food, clothing, cars, housing, internet, iPhones, computers, direct deliveries, and everything else "for free." Apparently not books by Marxist authors, though. Those uniquely require property rights and corporate distribution! I notice that Osterweil's book lists the copyright under her name and contains a firm warning from Hachette Book Group against "theft of the author's intellectual property."

See Jason Brennan's excellent critique of Osterweil's position.

As I've written, rioters smashed store windows in Denver and committed other acts of violence. Previously vandals even hit History Colorado. And of course vandals had to damage Denver's memorial to the Armenian genocide.

Business owners (and their employees and customers) suffered far worse in Kenosha, where rioters burned down numerous businesses, including an immigrant-owned car dealership. Josh Glancy reports, "The worst hit area is uptown, beating heart of the city's black community."

We all remember the "autonomous" zone in Seattle. Even the New York Times eventually published an article offering the perspective of business owners on this.

Meanwhile, it is not difficult to find leftists such as Nikole Hannah-Jones who claim that rioting and vandalism are "not violence" so long as they only destroy property.

And some leftists don't seem entirely convinced that violence against people is always such a bad idea. After protesters erected a guillotine outside Jeff Bezos's house, the Chicago Teachers Union Tweeted, "We are completely frightened by, completely impressed by and completely in support of wherever this is headed. #Solidarity." Here we see (elements of) America's left intentionally invoking the bloody and senseless violence of the French Revolution as an ideal to which to aspire.

Meanwhile, on the "right," we have "armed militia groups" marching through the streets of Denver, which at a minimum makes me very nervous (and I'm a gun-rights guy). (I do think people should check their reaction to that by watching video of a black militia marching through Atlanta. It seems like we should judge both groups similarly.)

More concerning, some right-wingers seem determined to turn the teen who fatally shot people in Kenosha into some kind of a hero or martyr. This is a more complicated case than some people claim. Because I think that self-defense probably was an element in the shootings [see update below], I doubt that they should be considered straight-up murder or "first-degree homicide." But the teen had no businesses even being in the area. There's a big difference between defending your own property, or the property of your community, and driving across state lines looking for trouble. The shooter violated at least some (reasonable) gun laws.

I don't want to go far down the QAnon rabbit-hole here, but I think we all remember "pizzagate." A recent story out of Colorado reports, "Mom accused in kidnapping plot with QAnon." Shamefully, the president (yes, of the United States) recently had nice things to say about QAnon, despite the FBI declaring the group a terror threat.

Although this doesn't take into account the recent street violence perpetrated by leftist activists, the Center for Strategic & International Studies finds, "Far-right terrorism has significantly outpaced terrorism from other types of perpetrators, including from far-left networks and individuals inspired by the Islamic State and al-Qaeda. Right-wing attacks and plots account for the majority of all terrorist incidents in the United States since 1994, and the total number of right-wing attacks and plots has grown significantly during the past six years. Right-wing extremists perpetrated two thirds of the attacks and plots in the United States in 2019 and over 90 percent between January 1 and May 8, 2020."

Suffice it to say that I'm worried, very worried, about the state of the country.

It is fair to ask how relatively worried we should be, in the scope of things, about current street violence within the United States. It's not like violence is a new thing here. Until the end of the Civil War millions of people endured the extreme violence of slavery. The country suffered through lynch mobs, white terror riots, the 1970 Kent State massacre, the 1992 Los Angeles riots, and many other problems. And of course we also have to reckon with the perpetual police violence that many people endure. As conservative economist Lyman Stone summarizes, "Police violence in America is extraordinary in its intensity." In Colorado we've dealt with the aftermath of the police killing of Elijah McClain (about which I've written).

Is current violence a sign of worse to come, a portent of national decline, or is it a short-term problem arising from the brutal (and brutally visible) police killing of George Floyd along with other incidents in the context of an anxiety-causing and economically distressing global pandemic?

We should remember here that the U.S. elections are a little over two months out, and I have a very easy time imagining scenarios in which street violence could get even worse through that period. We can only hope for clear-cut, uncontested election results.

Obviously particular instances of police violence along with the stressful pandemic set the circumstances for the recent street violence we've seen. My broader concern is that the deeper ideological trends within both left and right contributed to the violence at hand and may well lead to more such violence down the road. Indeed, I think those ideological trends eventually could destroy the United States.

For years leading Republicans have pandered to and cultivated xenophobic anti-immigrant sentiments. Now much of the Republican Party has erupted into full-blown racial nationalism. (By the way, I'm registered as a Republican; I joined the party prior to the 2016 elections mainly to try to keep Trump from winning the primaries.)

Meanwhile, the "identity politics" of the left sounds increasingly like the racism of the racialist-right, and the economic Marxists are crawling out from the sewers of history.

So, yes, I'm very worried. I see authoritarians to the left of me, authoritarians to the right.

Thankfully, I also see a lot of people coming together from both America's "left" and "right" (again, terms that largely lack clear meaning), people who are informally part of what I call the "Reason-Rights Coalition," who are determined to (rhetorically!) beat back back the authoritarians and restore America's broadly liberal spirit.

Updates: I generally like Joe Biden's recent remarks: "Shooting in the streets of a great American city is unacceptable. I condemn this violence unequivocally. I condemn violence of every kind by anyone, whether on the left or the right." See related video.

In Portland, Trump supporters shot at protesters, as well as at New York Times reporter Mike Baker, with paint balls and pepper spray—actions which constitute assault.

The Washington Post records various instances of violence in different places around the U.S.

A recent Reason magazine video focuses on left-wing violence in Portland.

A recent video shows fighting in Tallahassee and a right-winger pulling a gun.

"Armed neighborhood watch group forms to protect Kenosha subdivision." I don't think there's anything inherently wrong with this, depending on how the group operates; however, protecting homes is definitely something police should be doing.

August 31: The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports that, by the time people chased the shooter in Kenosha, "the teen had already shot and killed one protester, according to charging documents and video footage." Obviously that would undermine claims of lawful self-defense.

September 1: John Cassidy argues that Trump has incited street violence. I agree if we understand the term "incite" broadly to mean something like promote or encourage. Yet, as I Tweeted, "The efforts by some on the left to blame Trump exclusively for street violence, and totally let off the hook those leftists who openly endorse or excuse street violence, is just craziness. Both camps deserve blame."

Graeme Wood has a good critique in the Atlantic of the pro-looting book. He writes, "What do you do when the free stuff runs out, the businesses and ordinary people who invested in your city decide not to make that mistake again, and—oops!—a few shopkeepers get beaten to death? This messy process is the 'new world opening up, however briefly, in all its chaotic frenzy,' she writes. To me it sounds like a prequel to The Road."

September 6: Megan McArdle writes, "Rioting is a political, moral and economic disaster for everyone, and especially for communities of color." She marshals very convincing evidence proving her point.

September 10: Robert Tracinski also has a nice article against looting.

September 13: Laura Jedeed went undercover to report on a "far right" (nationalist) event in Oregon. The points out the deep problem of some people proclaiming to advocate "law and order" even as they endorse and even perpetrate certain sorts of violent crimes.

September 15: The Colorado Springs Gazette reviews that rioters attempted to blockade a neighborhood. "One protester stands in the firing position with a rifle aimed toward a pickup." Thankfully, police and prosecutors seem to be taking these crimes seriously.

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