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DANIEL VAUGHAN: Political violence in a peaceful era
There’s a growing belief that our current political environment is becoming more heated, more violent. I guess that’s to be expected when the top story of the week is how prominent Democrats were mailed homemade bombs from someone, who, at the time of this writing, remains unidentified.
The analogy getting thrown around among political pundits and journalists is that we’re in the situation of the proverbial frog in the pot, slowly feeling the heat rise. This week’s homemade pipe bombs are supposed to be the sign that the water’s boiling.
But from a historical standpoint, this is just false. Right now, we’re living in one of the most peaceful and prosperous times on earth. Looking back over many centuries, researchers have found that current homicide rates, not including deaths in genocide or war, are at all-time historic lows.
Even if it turned out to be someone on the right who mailed the pipe bombs, it wouldn’t be the worst politically motived attack by domestic terrorists on American soil. The 2001 Anthrax letter scare killed five people and infected 17 others.
The 2017 Congressional baseball field shooting sent Rep. Steve Scalise and two others to the hospital. American history is replete with examples of far worse politically-motivated violence.
In the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, radical leftist terrorist groups sprang up across America. These groups went well beyond the marches seen in newsreels. They were actual terrorists who killed innocent Americans with bombs.
Journalist Bryan Burrough detailed this period extensively in his book Days of Rage: America’s Radical Underground, the FBI, and the Forgotten Age of Revolutionary Violence. In a piece for Time Magazine, Burrough laid out the startling numbers:
In a single eighteen-month period during 1971 and 1972 the FBI counted an amazing 2,500 bombings on American soil, almost five a day. Because they were typically detonated late at night, few caused serious injury, leading to a kind of grudging public acceptance. The deadliest underground attack of the decade, in fact, killed all of four people, in the January 1975 bombing of a Wall Street restaurant. News accounts rarely carried any expression or indication of public outrage.
This violence helped elect and re-elect Richard Nixon, and part of his campaign promises on cutting down on crime dealt with these terrorist groups.
In that same piece, Burrough shares an account of a small bomb going off in a theater. When police tried evacuating the theater, people rioted when they were told to leave. They wanted to finish the movie.
Bomb attacks by domestic terrorists were that commonplace in 1970’s America.
The late 1960s were violent as well. In 1968, both Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy were assassinated. That year also saw bloody riots break out across the nation in 120 cities after King’s death, leaving 39 dead, 2,600 injured, and millions of dollars in property damage.
As a reminder, Baby Boomers alive now lived through this era, and some participated in it.
The 19th and 20th centuries were equally rife with union strike violence and mass racial violence. The Haymarket affair, from which Americans get their Labor Day holiday, was a union rally that left both workers and police officers dead after dynamite was thrown into the mix.
The Red Summer of 1919, as veterans returned from WWI, saw racial riots across the country that left hundreds dead and more injured.
And these are just highlights in American history; there are countless more examples. The point is that we don’t live in an era where political violence is the accepted norm — we live in an age where it’s the exception, and that’s a good thing.
It’s true we’re witnessing political violence creep back into our society. But as history shows, humanity has more potential for violence than the social media generation ever expects. I detailed a few weeks ago the increasing amount of attacks and harassment, encouraged by leading figures in both parties. It’s important to point this out and hold our leaders accountable.
It’s also important to note that the current political violence is happening in a time of economic plenty. What happens when that plenty dries up in the next recession, and economic anxiety returns? Many of the worst riots in American history occurred when people were fighting over scarce jobs and resources.
Our political leaders and the media aren’t thinking about that when they fan the flames of dangerous rhetoric. We get weak statements from our leaders and empty lectures from the media.
The increasing anger we’re feeling is raw human nature, pushing to resurface. It’s the real barbarian trying to get into the gates, into our peaceful era, and blaming any one political leader for this is naive.
In the post-Reagan era, our society experienced great peace. Our long-time 20th Century foe was defeated, the economic malaise was reversed, and the crime and domestic terrorists stomped out. Preventing the rise of a new era of violence requires understanding what produced our peaceful age and how to protect and reinvigorate it, and then to advance that peace forward.
If we don’t do that, then the violence you see now will get much worse. History has shown that what you see now is child’s play.
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