Probing the roots of political violence

By Alan Bean

“The rise in homicide [in the mid-nineteenth century] coincided . . . with a loss of faith in government and in moderate, mainstream political parties . . . Parties that were more aggressive ideologically took their place. The leaders of these parties questioned the legitimacy of national institutions and challenged other Americans’ morality, patriotism, and right to citizenship. They used extreme rhetoric to generate partisan enthusiasm, and they encouraged righteous and retributive violence, especially in defense of property and rights.”

Randolph Roth, American Homicide, p. 301

As a nation comes to grips with yet another senseless killing spree, leading lights on the left and right are making accusations and counter-accusations.  Did Tea Party rhetoric encourage Jared Loughner to open fire on congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and a long list of innocent bystanders?  Was Loughner indirectly influenced by a poisonous political environment?  Or, as Sarah Palin suggests, is Loughner solely responsible for his actions?

Much has been made of the gun-talk popular on the political right.  Why, for instance, did Ms. Giffords opponent in the recent election encourage supporters to join him in firing off M-16 rifles?  What’s with the cross-hairs on Sarah Palin’s political maps and why is she so enamored of “Lock-n-load” references?

I have been slow to join this discussion.  It seems tacky to be pointing fingers in the wake of so much awfulness.  The first thing that came to mind when I heard the dreadful news from Tucson, regrettably, was “So much for Sarah Palin’s presidential ambitions.”  Were I a better person, my initial reaction would have been a mixture of horror and deep sympathy, but I am who I am.  I smothered an impulse to add my ounce of vitriol to the river of angry words coursing across the American landscape.  That ought to count for something.

I was also restrained by ignorance.  How much do we really know about Jared Laughner?  It appears he suffers from mental illness; but the degree of his affliction remains as obscure as the shape of his political ideology.  Much better, I thought, to wait for a more focused portrait to emerge.

We often talk as if the hostility of the present moment is unique.  Unfortunately, we’ve been here before.  America has been a singularly violent nation since the middle of the nineteenth century.  Our homicide rate, like our rate of incarceration, is six times the rate in other western democracies.  There has always been a strong correlation between politics and violence. 

After sifting through oceans of statistics, Randolph Roth’s American Homicide posits a strong correlation between violence between non-intimates and a general lack of national cohesion.  Scan through these choice quotes from his chapter on the Civil War period, “All is Confusion, Excitement and Distrust.”

Ultimately the increase in homicide in the United States occurred because Americans could not coalesce into a nation.  As the country struggled through the wrenching and divisive changes of the mid-nineteenth century–the crises over slavery and immigration, the decline in self-employment, and the rise of industrialized cities–the patriotic faith in government that most Americans had felt so strongly after the Revolution was undermined by anger and distrust.  Disillusioned by the course the nation was taking, people felt increasingly alienated from both their government and their neighbors.  They were losing the sense that they were participating in a great adventure with their fellow Americans.  Instead, they were competing in a cutthroat economy and a combative electoral system against millions of strangers whose interests and values were antithetical to their own.

Any of that sound familiar?  How about this:

The rise in homicide [in the mid-nineteenth century] coincided with a nationwide decline in patriotism (especially in identification with national political symbols) and with a loss of faith in government and in moderate, mainstream political parties . . . The Democrats failed as a national party and the Whigs failed altogether, leaving the two-party system in ruins.  Parties that were more aggressive ideologically took their place.  The leaders of these parties questioned the legitimacy of national institutions and challenged other Americans’ morality, patriotism, and right to citizenship.  They used extreme rhetoric to generate partisan enthusiasm, and they encouraged righteous and retributive violence, especially in defense of property and rights.

Roth argues that the spike in politically related homicide between 1840 and the end of the Civil War, though evident in the northern states, reached near apocalyptic proportions in the South, particularly in regions where neither abolitionists nor secessionists controlled the political landscape.  While homicide rates returned to historic norms in the North following the Civil War, the South was a different story:

The formation and ultimate failure of the Confederacy, the efforts by black and white Republicans to reconstruct state governments after the Civil War, and the campaign by conservative whites to ‘redeem’ the South from Republican rule took a terrible toll in human life and had a catastrophic effect on murder rates.  Every phase of the process of dissolution and rebuilding led to higher levels of political violence and everyday violence among unrelated adults.  Homicide rates were highest where political divisions among whites and between whites and blacks were deepest.  Wherever prewar governments failed under the strain of secession and the war and wherever the struggle to control state governments after the war was most intense, whites began killing other whites as well as blacks, creating the worst homicide rates the South had seen since the early seventeenth century.

Roth emphasizes that homicide rates held steady in parts of the South where support for succession was near-unanimous.  But “wherever the Union lost control and the Confederacy failed to gain control, homicide rates rose to 100-200 per 100,000 per year” [that is, between twenty and forty times the current rate].

From north Texas to Missouri, the Confederacy’s borderlands were a hotbed of violence during the Civil War.  Slavery had an uneven presence in the region: there were pockets of intense, pro-Confederate sentiment surrounded by large areas in which residents were indifferent or hostile to the Confederacy.

The parallel between borderland America in the nineteenth century and early 20th century America is imperfect to say the least.  But the dynamics of violence haven’t changed.  According to a recent analysis piece in the New York Times, Ms. Giffords serves in a swing district in which neither side in the great American culture war has been able to gain the upper hand.  The immigration issue has divided the electorate.  “Given its locale and its demographic mix, the Eighth District long offered a stage for a combustible mix of issues that have torn apart other parts of the country. But the divisions seemed particularly searing here. Because of efforts to more aggressively close California’s border with Mexico, Arizona has seen a surge of illegal immigration that has heightened tensions.”

Randolph Roth believes that in periods of social chaos when respect for authority has virtually vanished, homicide rates will always be extreme.  This account of the post-Civil War South, for instance, reads like a description of a Baltimore ghetto circa 1985:

One of the worst consequences of the failure of the Confederacy was the intensification of the so-called honorific violence that had plagued the South before the war.  In a society filled with mistrust, men could not afford to show weakness or to tolerate disrespect: if they did so, they risked being ‘run over’.  They came to believe that swaggering and bullying would deter attacks on themselves and their kin.  As often as not, of course, that strategy led to violence.

“Swaggering and bullying” behavior is a sign of deep insecurity.  American foreign policy has frequently fallen into this pattern, and the lock-n-load rhetoric currently in vogue on the American right reflects fear, not confidence. 

Randolph says the vast majority of post Civil War violence was perpetrated by veterans of the lost cause:

The surge in homicides was overwhelmingly the work of former Confederates.  They killed blacks, white Republicans, and one another at an alarming rate.  They were responsible for the great disparity between the rates at which blacks and whites committed murder in Republican-governed states.  In rural Louisiana, for example, sixteen times as many blacks were killed in interracial confrontations as whites, and whites killed one another at twice the rate blacks did (34 per 100,000 adults per year versus 18 per 100,000).

Things have changed, of course.  Homicide rates in the black population are now much higher than rates in white and Latino communities.  But I would suggest the roots of the violence remain the same: people who feel rejected, defeated, unrepresented, humiliated and disposable, whether in the South or the urban wastelands of contemporary America, will lash out. 

American political discourse hasn’t changed all that much since the post civil war period.  White southern resentment continues to drive conservative politics.  Many within the conservative movement have little interest in the “race question” and some likely hold moderate views.  But subtract white racial resentment from the conservative coalition and it would collapse instantly. 

Consider this, only a quarter of white Americans think blacks are due an apology for Jim Crow injustice.  How would Republicans whites respond to that question?  How about the Tea Party folks.  Would ten percent of either group agree that America needs to apologize for Jim Crow?  Or would the figure be closer to 5 percent?

Similar questions related to the immigration issue would yield wildly divergent results if posed to whites and Latinos.

We are an ideologically divided nation in which neither Republicans nor Democrats have been able to establish political dominance.  Moreover, the Republican Party is now controlled by its radical wing while the Democrats lack a coherent voice or a guiding philosophy.  Thus far, Tea Party lock-n-loud rhetoric has produced plenty of violent symbolism, but virtually no physical violence. 

Will this continue?  Could Jared Loughner be the first fruits of an emerging phenomenon? 

I’ll reserve comment on Loughner until we know more about the man, but I suspect we will be seeing more political violence. 

As Roth’s careful analysis makes clear, there never was a golden age of American exceptionalism.  Technological progress has been vertical for centuries now, but our moral trajectory has been flat, and occasionally spins into the apocalypse.  When faith in government crumbles people get violent; when folks feel powerless and humiliated they lash out.  Only extreme conditions overflow in violence, but you have to wonder:  as inner city neighborhoods gradually stabilize, are things heating up in the suburbs?

4 thoughts on “Probing the roots of political violence

  1. “Or, as Sarah Palin suggests, is Loughner solely responsible for his actions?” Neither Sarah Palin, nor Glenn Beck, nor Jim Wallis is legally responsible for what Loughner allegedly did. But, as John Donne said centuries ago, “No man is an island, entire to itself.” Loughner acted in a context of which vitriolic rhetoric was a part. Everyone who lives in that context is impacted by it. Including Loughner, Sarah Palin, Charles Kiker, and Alan Bean. Was it the flash point that pushed Loughner over the edge? I don’t know. But I know that I have a responsibility to guard my words, as does Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck, and Jim Wallis.

    See James chapter 3

  2. People like Sarah Palin need to understand that there are a lot of crazy people out there who will interpret violent metaphors literally. By the way, sorry for the editing errors in the original post–I did an edit, but it didn’t take for some reason.


  3. I wonder if many of the white people polled knew the extent and effect of the Jim Crow laws? The most common way to bury oppression in the past is simply to forget about it–teach about the inspiring MLK, show photos of little girls walking into school through a crowd, with a soldier beside her, etc. (don’t mention how separate-but-equal schools are today) Many of us need a reminder that this is not about making us feel guilty–it’s about acknowledging what really happened, looking for anything we can do to make amends, and moving ahead with the experience inside us for the future.

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