From Mother Jones to Middlebury: The Problem and Promise of Political Violence in Trump’s America

You won't understand the resistance if you never stop judging it.

What is going on?

They don’t teach about it in school anymore, but in the late summer of 1921, 10,000 coal miners in the southern fields of West Virginia took up arms and waged war against their masters. The fighting lasted for five days. The miners had numbers but no other advantage, arming themselves with their own rifles and marching uphill against 2,000 entrenched strikebreakers who fired down on them with heavy guns and flew private airplanes overhead, dropping homemade bombs and poison gas on the incipient union. The two sides fired 1 million rounds between them, killing 10 strikebreakers and 100 miners. On Sept. 2, President Warren Harding ordered in the army. The union retreated. Over the following days, law enforcement arrested nearly 1,000 miners, indicting them for conspiracy, murder, and treason against the state of West Virginia. The Battle of Blair Mountain was the largest and most violent political uprising the United States had seen since the Civil War. It still is.

Nothing in the age of Donald Trump is truly unprecedented, except this: There is no longer any such thing as American subtext. We deal exclusively in text now. Before, the mainstream of our discourse confined questions of political violence to code and circumspection. In a country that ordinarily presumes itself too civilized for such things, the routine outbreak of bloodshed and arson was regularly and necessarily transformed into a distant sociological matter, a curious pathology of black and poor people or otherwise into a purely theoretical possibility entertained by fringe political actors. Now, the New York Times strokes its chin and asks if it’s OK to punch Nazis. You can hear Trump’s predecessor intoning, “That’s not who we are.” It isn’t yet. But after decades of superficial peace, even the mainstream wonders if it’s who we are becoming once again.

Perhaps owing to the fact that comfortable Americans do not consider political violence to be a national constant, its renewed visibility has come to them as a shock and an aberration, as a precipice we are about to cross without enough consideration. The black bloc decks Richard Spencer. Anti-fascist (“antifa”) radicals in California light fire to Berkeley. Student protestors block Charles Murrary in Middlebury, Vermont, roughing up a professor in the process. Protestors across the country block streets and airports and highways, often coming into confrontation with police — how long, the stupefied observer asks, until somebody gets killed? Is this really what we want? Political times are dire, but should we really normalize violence and destruction? Is it called for, is it helpful, and is it right?

The questions are muddled and obscure. They ask after different things, produce contradictory answers, and sort invariably along class and party lines. This confusion is not surprising; many of these people are being called to seriously consider the question of political violence for the first time in their lives. But no matter the cause, the consequence has been circularity and confusion.

If we are to make any progress at all toward finding an answer to the question of political violence, we must first get the question right. What, in the face of all this, are we asking? For all the press they’ve gotten, all the mainstream moral panic, we are still in the early days. The violence we’ve seen so far is small. A punch, a fire, a minor riot. But in each there appears to be a new, subterranean malevolence, a sense that these are not just scattered outbursts, that all this is escalating somewhere. Will we soon find ourselves once again watching exploitation become confrontation, reading of armed men charging up a mountain to their deaths, without any sense of how we got there? What is at the heart of all this?

Stills from an Australian Broadcasting Company video show Richard Spencer being punched by a masked man in Washington, D.C., during an interview on Jan. 20. (Photo credit: Australian Broadcasting Corporation)

Is it right?

The Times formulates political violence as a moral question. Is it OK to punch Nazis? Do ethics permit it? This is a natural impulse and in my observation the most common angle by which the question is taken up, but I suppose I should tell you now that this strikes me as the most wrongheaded way to go about asking. The trouble is not so much with the question itself, which is as profound as any, but with the answers it elicits, which are invariably useless or cheap. I read a thousand takes and tweets, condemning white nationalism but reminding readers that this is America and it is never acceptable to strike somebody because of their political opinion. I am reminded, over and over, that in a free society we shut down bad ideas with debate, not riots. We peacefully assemble. We call our representatives. We don’t smash the windows of a Bank of America. When we do that, are we any better than the illiberal forces we’re protesting? No, the answers come.

Perhaps this is the virtuous answer, but it does not escape my notice that those who are most eager to give it are not subject to the dilemma in bodily terms. “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.

This is not to say that absolute damnation of violence is illegitimate. But if the answer to the moral question is absolute, then it very quickly becomes useless. Violence persists in the face of a simple “no.” What can the saint say to this? “Go to church, all of you?” Perhaps we should, but there is violence in churches, too.

It is, at any rate, uncommon to find a respectable contemporary American truly dedicated to the idea that political violence is always on the wrong side of moral life. Shortly after midnight on June 28, 1969, police raided New York City’s Stonewall Inn, and the ensuing riot gave birth to the queer liberation movement. Today, good liberals celebrate it as if it were a pride parade, with all the requisite city permits in order, before turning around to ask if they really have to remind everyone that violence and looting — even against somebody as loathsome as Donald Trump, even in response to police brutality, even when all ordinary political recourse has failed — are, well, just wrong. It makes you as bad they are. This moral absolutism is the far more common type; it is also the type that lacks the virtue of sincerity. It is the hypocrisy of strivers who wish to signal allegiance with historical good causes and then retreat to vague paeans and sputtering rectitude when asked for a verdict on the uncertain present.

As it happens, the ethical question is backward under any circumstances. It presumes that politics are played out only after a moral consensus has been reached and not the very mechanism by which our moral claims are contested. Answers to the moral question stake out political positions. They do not illuminate their origins. The most fruitful and honest answer, therefore, is only conditional, which is to say, it is only the midwife of more questions. Perhaps it was OK what happened, but tell me more. Who committed the violence? In the name of what cause? Against whom? To what extent and to what effect? Was it a fist or a shove? A bullet, a riot, or a bomb? What was achieved?

Left: Logan Country deputies defend against striking coal miners on Sept. 10, 1921, at Blair Mountain in West Virginia. Right: United Mine Workers of American officers show an undetonated bomb they say was dropped over miners’ camps on Sept. 11, 1921. (Photo credit: Charleston Gazette)

Is it wise?

Mary Harris “Mother” Jones was at the Battle of Blair Mountain, although she counseled against it. Earlier that August, the socialist and radical organizer appeared at a rally, urging the miners to hold off their march. Mother Jones had been in shooting wars between organizers and ownership before, had spent time in prison, and was in the words of a former West Virginia district attorney “the most dangerous woman in America.” She was not skittish about violence for just ends. But Mother Jones believed that the union in Logan County was not trained or armed to defeat local law enforcement, much less the Pinkertons and federal troops that were likely to appear. She feared that the battle would be lost and with it any hope of unionizing the county. Nothing broke morale like a violent defeat.

The miners ignored Mother Jones, but she was right. After the battle was lost, union membership in southern West Virginia dropped from 50,000 to 10,000. The coalfields would not be organized until the New Deal.

Those who are unsatisfied by moral considerations of political violence and those who are uninterested in anything but the brute practicalities of political life tend to turn to the tactical question of violence. It doesn’t ask if political violence is permissible, only what’s to be gained by it. Will it work? Will it bring about the desired outcome at an acceptable cost? Will it turn sympathies against us, provoke a backlash, or cancel out our gains entirely? Even in the early days of our consideration, these questions are near as common as the moral ones. Their answers are more varied and less prone to the vague posturing of moral declaration. But they are equally prohibitive — and no less confused.

For some, the tactical question still leads to an absolute prohibition on violence. This tends to come in two forms. The first is only a cynical version of the moral prohibition: Perhaps we know violence is not a mortal sin, but others don’t. Using violence just plays into our opponents’ hands. Refusing it is how we win the moral high ground. But we should not fail to notice that even this is a violent metaphor. The high ground is what the strikebreakers held at Blair Mountain, too, and it proved itself superior in dirt and rock to any abstract incarnation.

The Sept. 1, 1921, front page of the Washington Times features a top story on the Battle of Blair Mountain. (Photo credit: Library of Congress)

The second form of the tactical prohibition is more pragmatic. Its crux is not whether or not a political cause looks good by refusing violence but the futility of political violence in the modern world. The leftist critic Fredrik deBoer provided perhaps the most pointed rendition of this argument, writing:

Whenever people debate the morality of left-wing political violence, I always ask: what targets are you going to hit? Who exactly is going to be waging this violence? What’s the specific tactical purpose of your first attack? What’s the broader strategic plan? Where are you getting your munitions? Do you have a plan to establish supply lines? What ability do you have to set up medical facilities? Who will care for the children of your fallen comrades? There’s no answers to these questions, of course, because they know they can’t come up with them. Not in their wildest dreams. Again, the fixation on the morality of violence represents a means to avoid talking about the tactical irrelevance of violence.

He goes on, but the argument is clear enough — the moral question obscures the tactical one, and on that front the present United States is like nothing the world has ever known. It is not France in 1790, Cuba in the 1950s, or even Logan County in 1921. The police alone are sufficiently militarized to crush any uprising, and the response to any sufficiently serious uprising would not end with the police.

But even deBoer’s stab at a totalizing answer does not really settle the tactical question. Political violence will not overthrow the government, but tactics are measured by objectives, and overthrowing the whole apparatus of the state is not the only objective on offer. It is rarely the objective at all. While Blair Mountain failed, the coal wars at large, fought in fields and mines and factories, provoked the political courage of the whole working class, forcing concessions and culminating in the National Labor Relations Act. And the triumphs need not be so superlative. Often, political violence only wants to make a point, to serve as agitprop, to achieve a single destructive goal and be finished. You do not need supply lines or medical facilities in order to show that these new white nationalists can’t take a punch. You do not need to defeat the Marine Corps in order to turn a thousand television cameras on your town and make the nation ask what conditions would inspire you to burn it. Riots succeed as often as they fail. Backlash is inevitable, but the real trouble is that there is no historical consistency to when that backlash proves stronger. “Is this violence tactically sound?” can be predicted, but it cannot be known. It cannot, at any rate, settle the larger question.

There are of course plenty who answer the tactical question in more conditional terms. They point that if you are after, for example, a wholesale transformation of the economic structure of society, then history dictates the necessity of plague, war, or revolution. For them, violence may be dangerous and undesirable, perhaps even futile, but, they say, no matter the risks, violence is far from unwise; it is tactically necessary. Between these and the prohibitionists, there is every other shade of conditionalist, too, examining each outbreak of violence, each situation where it has been proposed, and scrutinizing probabilities and outcomes, like armchair colonels with their own secret checklists. But what I cannot avoid is the suspicion that no matter how it is answered, the tactical question is as practically useless as the moral one. Even if a consensus were reached among theorists — a prohibition or even an agreeable checklist — then how, precisely, would it be implemented? Where does the revolutionary army assemble to take its orders, and where do they come from? Antifa kids in Berkeley do not listen to magazine writers; for the latter to condemn the former is an act of vanity. Protestors in the streets of Baltimore do not check Twitter for a tactical update before deciding if they ought to torch a car. There is no central committee for American radicalism, and indeed what is being contested in radical politics is precisely whose authority constrains us. A tendency toward violence, if it is evidence of any disposition, is evidence that its perpetrators are not terribly respectful of the current answer to that question or its dictates.

Another frustration to the tactical lens: Political violence is not always planned, its date set and its objectives clear, emerging from rallies and meetings and strategy sessions. More often it emerges in the heart, in terror or in anger. A peaceful protest turns violent in an instant. An individual crazed with frustration or grief stakes out on their own. A small group sees a chance and takes it. A provocation brings dozens or hundreds or thousands of people into the street; leadership is unclear; and soon the city is burning. A universal tactical resolution cannot change this. Even if political violence is a sin, it is, like all sins, largely committed in impulse, contrary to the best intentions of foresight.

Police and demonstrators clash after a limo was set on fire on K Street NW following the inauguration of President Donald Trump on Jan. 20 in Washington, D.C. (Photo credit: SPENCER PLATT/Getty Images)

The phenomenology of extraordinary violence

The failure of the questions that we have tried so far is that they ask, in one way or another, whether or not political violence is warranted or wise. Should we do it? Does it work? Is it OK? The limitation of such questions is made plain by even the most cursory examination of reality. There is political violence. We are not in a position to decide if there ought to be.

I have no moral verdict for political violence nor any tactical advice to give about it. What I am interested in is its phenomenology and circumstance. There are Nazis. There are men in black hoodies punching them in the streets. Why? For all but the most zealous, political violence is a risk seldom worth taking, even when it is as mild as a single punch. For all the conviction in the world, for all the moral and tactical certainty, it is still too much for most people under most circumstances to imperil their freedom and their bodies in service of a cause. As the reach and power of the state have grown, so has the danger. There are always, at any rate, plenty of luxuries and distractions. Yet violence persists in spite of all this. Why? This is the phenomenological question, and it seems to me the only sensible one to begin with, for if we cannot say why political violence occurs, there’s little sense coming to moral or tactical conclusions about it. We don’t yet even know what it means.

The cheapest answer is found in the savagery of the human heart, but it is not sufficient. Perhaps we are always looking for a license to kill and burn and break; perhaps it is an inextinguishable constant that political disputes settled in words and laws are temporary but conflicts settled in blood are permanent. Bellum omnium contra omnes. If so, then the curious feature of society is not that political violence occurs but that we have so thoroughly contained it. But I do not believe this, and I doubt that many do. Moreover, I know that even if this were so, then it would not answer why political violence in the Western world is rising or why it feels as if it is. Even if Leviathan is only leaking, we still must know where the leak is coming from.

Phenomenology is, at least, a good method for finding the right question. If we want to make sense of political violence, we must know why it happens and why it is happening now. I’ll give a provisional answer for our present moment. If political violence is a risk and is therefore rare, then its increasingly frequent outbreak must reflect some intolerable pressure, circumstances sufficient to overcome every prohibition we have put in place to prevent it. This is perhaps what is meant by the curse of living in interesting times.

With the ascension of Donald Trump, the United States finds itself in an uncertain place, and this uncertainty is felt most acutely among the poor and oppressed. Perhaps it should not surprise us that under such circumstances, more and more people are convinced that the official channels of political redress have broken down, that the system is not working and therefore extreme measures must be taken. For two years, mainstream American media has called Trump a fascist. I don’t believe that, but for those who do, what strategic conclusion can they reach? You don’t fight a fascist the same way that you fight a standard stock reactionary. You certainly don’t fight him by calling your Congressmen and writing sternly worded takes. The more dire the stakes, the more inadequate the sanctioned and encouraged avenues of redress, and this, perhaps, is the great power that violence has over its commissioner. Even in small doses, it seems to honor the seriousness of his circumstances. We have made great progress, in this country, confining political violence to the place beyond the pale. In ordinary discourse, it is beyond even the uncivil and unwise; there is no recourse that provokes more ready condemnation. But this only heightens its significance. If violence is an extraordinary recourse, then its use signifies extraordinary circumstances, affirming the abnormality and urgency of its conditions. A voice calling in the wilderness may not be heard. It is difficult to ignore a forest fire.

On Inauguration Day, black bloc protestors smashed the windows of banks and coffee shops in Washington, D.C. They painted a golden “A” on a limousine and set it on fire. Perhaps this was immoral. Perhaps it was tactically wrong, useless in the best case. But if the calculus of political violence converts fear and pressure into flames, then there is no sense insisting that the product is wrong. It just is. “They preferred the invention because this invention expressed and corroborated their hates and fears so perfectly,” James Baldwin wrote of the dubious causes of a riot in the New York City neighborhood of Harlem. “It is just as well to remember that people are always doing this.… The effect, in Harlem, of this particular legend was like the effect of a lit match in a tin of gasoline. The mob gathered before the doors of the Hotel Braddock simply began to swell and to spread in every direction, and Harlem exploded.”

Violence does not come from its immediate causes, and it is immune, in every case, to corrective lecturing. The intolerable pressure of a hateful and fearful world is always waiting to explode.

Demonstrators protest the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., on Aug. 16, 2014. (Photo credit: JOE RAEDLE/Getty Images)

Ordinary Violence

Is political violence on the rise in the United States? We have gone so far supposing that it is, but we should stop a moment to be certain. What have we seen lately? A few punches and petty looting, a few fires. Hot crowds. Even in the more than three-year history of the Black Lives Matter movement, which perhaps represents the focal point of civil discontent in this decade, only two or three cities have hosted a sustained uprising. The recent presidential campaign did not produce much either. Chicago saw a single night of unrest. In June, protestors at a Trump campaign rally in California assaulted several attendees, throwing fists and eggs but hospitalizing no one. The press called it a riot, but it wasn’t. Several weeks later, Micah Xavier Johnson assassinated five police officers in Dallas, acting, we are told, from political conviction, but it is more surprising that he has been the only one so far. Is this all? It is nothing even approaching the 1960s, when the president of the United States was assassinated; when Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. were killed; when race riots and anti-war riots rocked every major city and even the Democratic National Convention became a running fight between protestors and the police; when the Weather Underground bombed buildings and a man won the California primary, gave a speech, walked outside, and was shot in the heart. We are even further from Blair Mountain. In this century, it is heartening to see even a peaceful strike of a thousand workers for a single day.

It is tempting to suspect that the phenomenology we should be after here is not that of renewed political violence but of the clouded looking glass that has deceived us into thinking we’re teetering on the brink of a new era at all. It would be comforting — and it would ring true enough, as far as it goes — to say that we have gained a distorted sense of our moment, something owing to the amplifying effects of social media, and it would be a simple matter to produce charts that show political violence is at its lowest level in decades. But charts bear their own distortions.

Political violence is not declining, but it is not rising, either. The fact of the matter is that political violence has never left us. It has only undergone a shift in the balance of its forms.

In Ferguson, Missouri, Darren Wilson opened fire on Michael Brown, leaving his body in the street for hours. Thousands of immigrants languished in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention centers, while in Arizona their countrymen were held in prison tents in the summer heat by a thrifty sheriff. In the name of global security, drones whistle their impersonal homicides in the skies above Pakistan. Federal marshals return runaway slaves. Strikebreakers fire down the mountain at miners.

This, too, is political violence. How can we call it anything else? When worried pundits ask if we are in a new era of political violence, they are speaking only of the unsanctioned kind, the kind prohibited by convention and law, which tempts the dangerous and instant retribution of the state. They ask after only a small part of our subject, and they find it alien, like a great whale launching suddenly out from beneath calm water and crashing back down to disrupt our ordinary peace. But sanctioned brutality is the constant ambience of our republic and our empire. It is with us all the time. The whale disrupts the sea, but the sea is far larger and it is never calm.

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.

In May 1920, 13 agents dispatched by the Stone Mountain Coal Company arrived in Matewan, a town in the West Virginia coalfields. Their purpose was forcible eviction, but the first family on their list did not cooperate. The agents threw the contents of the home into the road, forcing a mother and her children out at gunpoint, their things scattered all around them. Word spread quickly, and when the agents were leaving town, the local police chief and a group of deputized miners stopped them. The chief attempted to arrest the agents. The agents produced a warrant for the chief’s arrest. The mayor intervened. We are not sure what happened, but 10 men — seven from the agency and three from the town — were shot and killed in the rain. Even then, the Battle of Blair Mountain might still have been averted, but it cannot escape our notice that violence did not merely interrupt the ordinary operation of the coalfields. Violence is how the coalfields operated at all.

Left: A mob burns the remains of Will Brown in Omaha, Neb., after he was accused of assaulting a white woman in September 1919. (Photo credit: Chicago Tribune); Right: Dylann Roof appears via video uplink at Centralized Bond Hearing Court on June 19, 2015. (Photo credit: GRACE BEAHM/Pool/Getty Images)

The Violence of the Right

On Sept. 26, 1919, a 41-year-old black man with acute rheumatism named Will Brown was accused of viciously assaulting a white woman in Omaha, Nebraska. We do not know if he was guilty because before he was arrested, he was dead. The night of the alleged attack, a mob gathered outside Brown’s home, forcing dozens of police officers to escort him to the county courthouse. The crowd followed and grew. Despite nearly 50 officers kept on for crowd control, they could not stop the thousands of people who surrounded them. The mob looted nearby stores, stealing guns and firing into the courthouse windows. They lit the building on fire next. When firefighters arrived, they were stopped from extinguishing the flames.

The policemen and other officials escaped somehow, either let go or exchanged for Brown, who could not escape. The mob stripped him and tied him to a lamppost. They hoisted him into the air, hanged, and shot over and over. When they were done, they tied his body to the back of a car and drove it downtown. Then they burned what was left of Will Brown.

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?

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.

Of course, this hardly matters to the psychology of the situation. Zimmerman believes a skinny black teenager means to kill him. Disgruntled white workers believe immigrants are stealing their food and raping their daughters. Roof believes that America is facing a white genocide and acts accordingly. Motivations are not frequently subject to fact-checking. But psychology cannot make sense of the organized campaigns of right-wing terrorism that followed the end of Reconstruction nor the perverse sport that persists into our own time of provoking queer Americans into confrontations and beatings. Individual psychosis does not explain this unless every Klansman carried out a century of terrorism in a fugue.

The liminal violence of the right exists within a framework of the permissible: a nation that implies through its rhetoric and its legal habits that while it isn’t saying this is allowed, take care not to get caught, or be too obvious, and you stand a good chance of getting off.

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.

The Violence of the Whole World

Have we got the question right yet? I set out to make sense of political violence, of a moment in our history when it appears to be on the rise. But even settling on the right avenue has produced too many answers. The phenomenology of violence is the explosion of pressure. It is the churning mechanism of the republic and the electric wrath of a reactionary will to power. It comes from every side and every angle, from some calculus that is adding new variables all the time. It is no longer difficult to see the causes of political violence but to find some area untouched by its effects.

For all this, we are afraid of violence. We dislike it and rightly prefer in almost every case to see it gone. We hate to be reminded of it, and that’s what all the worry is right now. But despite this, it is everywhere, in the miner charging up the mountain, the policeman murdering a child, in the burning car and the burning cross and the burning city street. It is everywhere because although we hate it, we do not hate it half as much as the terrible gulf within our hearts between the world as it is and the world as it ought to be. This is the secret. What we are seeing now and what we have always seen is only this fury and desire projected outside our bodies. We are social animals. Politics is the art of deriving an is from an ought, and no matter our self-deception, we have never done this with words alone. Political violence is redundant. I believe that. Political violence is politics by degrees.

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?

Top photo credit: AP/Getty Images/Charleston Gazette/Foreign Policy illustration

Emmett Rensin is a writer and editor currently based in Iowa City, Iowa. Previous, he was a features editor for Vox and a contributing editor for the Los Angeles Review of Books. His work has appeared in the Atlantic, the New Republic, the Los Angeles Times, and elsewhere. (@emmettrensin)