America Can Have Democracy or Political Violence. Not Both.
The editorial board is a group of opinion journalists whose views are informed by expertise, research, debate and certain longstanding values. It is separate from the newsroom.
This editorial is the first in a series, “The Danger Within,” urging readers to understand the danger of extremist violence and possible solutions. Read more about the series in a note from Kathleen Kingsbury, the Times Opinion editor.
Over the past five years, incidents of political violence in the United States by right-wing extremists have soared. Few experts who track this type of violence believe things will get better anytime soon without concerted action. Domestic extremism is actually likely to worsen. The attack on Paul Pelosi, the husband of the speaker of the House of Representatives, was only the latest episode, and federal officials warn that the threat of violence could continue to escalate after the midterm elections.
The embrace of conspiratorial and violent ideology and rhetoric by many Republican politicians during and after the Trump presidency, anti-government anger related to the pandemic, disinformation, cultural polarization, the ubiquity of guns and radicalized internet culture have all led to the current moment, and none of those trends are in retreat. Donald Trump was the first American president to rouse an armed mob that stormed the Capitol and threatened lawmakers. Taken together, these factors form a social scaffolding that allows for the kind of endemic political violence that can undo a democracy. Ours would not be the first.
Yet the nation is not powerless to stop a slide toward deadly chaos. If institutions and individuals do more to make it unacceptable in American public life, organized violence in the service of political objectives can still be pushed to the fringes. When a faction of one of the country’s two main political parties embraces extremism, that makes thwarting it both more difficult and more necessary. A well-functioning democracy demands it.
The legal tools to do so are already available and in many cases are written into state constitutions, in laws prohibiting private paramilitary activity. “I fear that the country is entering a phase of history with more organized domestic civil violence than we’ve seen in 100 years,” said Philip Zelikow, the former executive director of the 9/11 commission, who pioneered legal strategies to go after violent extremists earlier in his career. “We have done it in the past and can do so again.”
As the range of violence in recent years shows, the scourge of extremism in the United States is evident across the political spectrum. But the threat to the current order comes disproportionately from the right.
Of the more than 440 extremism-related murders committed in the past decade, more than 75 percent were committed by right-wing extremists, white supremacists or anti-government extremists. The remaining quarter stemmed from a range of other motivations, according to a study by the Anti-Defamation League. There were 29 extremist-related homicides last year: 26 committed by right-wing extremists, two by Black nationalists and one by an Islamic extremist. The Department of Homeland Security has warned again and again that domestic extremism motivated by white supremacist and other right-wing ideologies is the country’s top terrorism threat.
Some of the most spectacular recent episodes of political terrorism are etched into the nation’s collective memory: mass shootings in El Paso and Buffalo, bomb and arson attacks against mosques and synagogues, a plot by a paramilitary group to kidnap Michigan’s governor, the storming of the Capitol on Jan. 6.
There have been attacks on conservatives, too: a man was arrested outside Brett Kavanaugh’s home after he said he wanted to kill a justice and in 2017, the shooting of Representative Steve Scalise at a baseball field. But the number and nature of the episodes aren’t comparable, and no leading figures in the Democratic Party condone, mock or encourage violence in ways that politicians on the right and their supporters in the conservative media have done.
In addition to these high-profile events, the threat of violence has begun to have a corrosive effect on many aspects of public life: the hounding of election workers until they are forced into hiding, harassment of school board officials, threats to judges, armed demonstrations at multiple statehouses, attacks on abortion clinicsand anti-abortion pregnancy centers, bomb threats against hospitals that offer care to transgender children, assaults on flight attendants who try to enforce Covid rules and the armed intimidation of librarians over the books and ideas they choose to share.
Meanwhile, threats against members of Congress are more than 10 times as numerous as they were just five years ago. “I wouldn’t be surprised if a senator or House member were killed,” Senator Susan Collins told The Times this fall.
Many — far too many — Americans now consider political violence not only acceptable but perhaps necessary. In an online survey of more than 7,200 adults, nearly a third of people answered that political violence is usually or always justified. The study, conducted by researchers at the University of California, Davis, and released in October, came to the alarming conclusion that “MAGA Republicans” (as opposed to those who identified themselves as traditional Republicans) “are more likely to hold extreme and racist beliefs, to endorse political violence, to see such violence as likely to occur and to predict that they will be armed under circumstances in which they consider political violence to be justified.”
Any violence suppresses participation in democratic decision making, and it can negate the decisions that are made. “The damage that this violence itself and the conspiracies driving it are causing to our democracy are already substantial and are likely to produce significant democratic decline if not arrested soon,” Rachel Kleinfeld of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace told the Jan. 6 committee.
There are four interrelated trends that the country needs to address: the impunity of organized paramilitary groups, the presence of extremists in law enforcement and the military, the global spread of extremist ideas and the growing number of G.O.P. politicians who are using the threat of political violence not just to intimidate their opponents on the left but also to wrest control of the party from those Republicans who are committed to democratic norms.
Over the coming weeks, relying on extensive reporting and deep analysis, this series plans to explore solutions, such as identifying members of violent paramilitary groups who may work in law enforcement or the military, stemming the money and technology that fuel these movements and describing how the Republican Party can fight its worst, violent fringes.
Preserving the health of our democracy is as much a matter of preventive care as it is the application of a tourniquet. A promising place to start combating political violence is with extremist paramilitary groups.
While the majority of such violence in the United States comes at the hands of people not strictly affiliated with these groups — the man who is accused of attacking Mr. Pelosi, for example, echoed their hatred of Nancy Pelosi, but it’s not clear whether the man had links to any of them — they are nonetheless often the vanguard of violent episodes, such as the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, and they are active in spreading their brands of ideological extremism online.
They go by many names: the Oath Keepers, the Proud Boys, the Boogaloo Bois, the Three Percenters, the Wolverine Watchmen. Some fancy themselves militias, but they aren’t, according to the law. These groups have been around in their modern incarnation since the end of the Vietnam War, and their popularity has waxed and waned. In fact, political violence is as old as the nation itself; right-wing frustrations with democratic outcomes have birthed militia movements throughout American history. Most notably, the Ku Klux Klan has spent over a century and a half, from Reconstruction to the present day, terrorizing Black Americans and others in service of political ends.
Today, levels of political violence are high and climbing. In 2020 the Center for Strategic and International Studies found that violence from all political ideologies reached its highest level since the group began collecting data in 1994. And extremist paramilitary groups have again become a common presence in American life, on college campuses, at public protests and at political rallies.
But it is unacceptable in a democracy for organized groups of men armed with military-style firearms and dressed in body armor to appear regularly at political rallies or to act as security for public officials and office seekers. Indeed, in nearly every state the subordination of the military to civil authorities is written explicitly into their constitutions.
“When private armies organize into military-style units that are neither responsible to, nor under the command of, the civil power of the state authorities, they may violate this constitutional command to the detriment of civil order,” concluded a report from the Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection at Georgetown Law School, which compiled a state-by-state compendium of laws banning so-called militias.
There is no federal anti-paramilitary law, though Congress should consider one. States, however, do have legal instruments to deal with these extremist groups, even if they rarely show the will to use them. When they do, these laws are effective.
In 1979 in Seadrift, Texas, the tension between white fishermen and newly arrived refugees from Vietnam who had begun to work the same waters turned deadly. A Vietnamese American fisherman shot and killed a white fisherman on the town dock in a dispute over fishing that, by 1981, had grown into a campaign of boat burnings, cross burnings and death threats from a group called the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. One Klan flyer posted in Seadrift at the time echoed the language of so-called great replacement theory: “After years and years of whites fishing along the Texas coast, the government has brought in Vietnamese replacements for them. White people are being replaced by nonwhites all over the United States.”
White fishermen, wearing hoods and holding AR-15 rifles, would cruise the waterfront to intimidate Vietnamese American fishermen. Kirk Wallace Johnson, in his new book “The Fishermen and the Dragon,” describes an incident in which the white fishermen dangled an effigy from an outrigger. In 1981, the Vietnamese Fishermen’s Association turned to lawyers, including Morris Dees of the Southern Poverty Law Center and Mr. Zelikow. They brought a case against the Klan using an anti-paramilitary statute that was on the books in Texas.
It was the first time in more than a century that the law had been used, Zelikow said, and it was the premise for the request to a judge to shut down the Klan campaign and its paramilitary training facilities. The lawyers developed a standardto define the illegal activity — one that distinguished hunters from paramilitary extremists. Illegal paramilitaries had, as an expert who testified put it, “command structure, training and discipline so as to function as a combat or combat support unit.”
The judge found in their favor and shut down the Klan. The strategy was used again in the mid-1980s by the Southern Poverty Law Center to shutter another Klan organization in North Carolina, which also explicitly outlaws paramilitary groups.
“We prohibit the existence of private military groups because they are a danger to society and to democracy. Unless we want to accept their presence and proliferation, we need to be willing to use the legal tools that we have to disrupt their activities,” Mr. Zelikow said in an interview.
In 2017, Mr. Zelikow, who lives in Charlottesville, Va., wrote about this legal strategy after the Unite the Right rally. He assisted another team of lawyers, led by a former federal prosecutor, Mary McCord, who soon after used a similar approach to bar nearly two dozen extremist paramilitary groups and their leaders from returning to Charlottesville on the first anniversary of the rally. And last month, Ms. McCord led a successful effort to get a court injunction against a paramilitary organization in New Mexico.
Maintaining a monopoly on force is, after all, a basic function of any government, and the Supreme Court upheld the legality of anti-paramilitary laws in 1886. Still, some legal scholars worry that the current court may decide that anti-paramilitary statutes run afoul of the Constitution’s guarantee of the right of free association and free speech. The current ultraconservative Supreme Court’s expansive view of the Second Amendment may also one day lead it to overturn anti-paramilitary laws, though the court did say in its 2008 decision on the individual right to bear arms that the amendment didn’t prevent states from outlawing paramilitary groups.
These laws are some of the best available tools the nation has to stop political violence without infringing on First Amendment freedoms, they have been effectively used in both liberal and conservative states, and they have overcome political opposition.
In Idaho, for example, critics of the state’s ban on private paramilitary activity called it an infringement on rights and freedoms. The state’s House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed a bill in February to repeal it. Then, in June, police arrested dozens of masked members of the Patriot Front white supremacist paramilitary group who, officials said, were in the back of a moving truck en route to disrupt an L.G.B.T.Q. Pride event.
Confronted with the immediate possibility of violence, Gov. Brad Little, a Republican who initially backed the effort to repeal the anti-militia law, spoke out forcefully against the threat of violence. “Intimidation, scare tactics and violence has no place in our great state,” he said. “All Americans should be able to peacefully express their constitutionally guaranteed right to free speech without the threat of violence. It is what has always set America apart from other nations.”
While the repeal bill passed the Idaho House, it died in the Senate and doesn’t appear likely to become law.
The power of the law to disrupt even the most prominent purveyors of extremism is on display in the trial of Stewart Rhodes and four other members of the Oath Keepers. In relation to their participation in the Jan. 6 attack, they are facing federal charges of seditious conspiracy, which carries a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison.
Mr. Rhodes’s defense is that the group is an educational group or a veterans’ assistance group, and he offers a variety of other excuses designed to show that they do not meet the legal standard of an unsanctioned paramilitary group. This standard and the laws against paramilitaries draw a clear line between repugnant ideology, which our democracy has always allowed, and politically motivated violence, which no democracy can survive.
The American public is gradually and alarmingly becoming inured to the presence of this violence, but it is the duty of our lawmakers to take this threat seriously and to use the tools they have to stop it."
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