The Fordham Ram

Political Violence and How to Avoid It

The+attempted+mail+bombings+are+just+one+of+the+many+new+forms+of+terrorism+that+America+must+be+vigilant+towards.+%28Courtesy+of+Facebook%29
The attempted mail bombings are just one of the many new forms of terrorism that America must be vigilant towards. (Courtesy of Facebook)

The attempted mail bombings are just one of the many new forms of terrorism that America must be vigilant towards. (Courtesy of Facebook)

The attempted mail bombings are just one of the many new forms of terrorism that America must be vigilant towards. (Courtesy of Facebook)


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By Collin Bonnell

The urge to resort to violence is innate in politics. Humanity’s tendency to vilify, demonize, contain and ultimately bring harm to our “enemies”—however we define this term—is something inherent to our psyche. In modern democratic societies, we tend to willfully ignore this discomforting aspect of the human subconscious—until some unseen event forces us to recognize its existence.

Two such events occurred two weeks ago, when a series of mail bombs were sent to prominent critics of President Trump; on the following Saturday, a man in Pittsburgh killed 11 innocent men and women in a synagogue in what was the largest anti-Semitic massacre in American history.

The past few years have seen several violent incidents carried out by members of the far-right, spurred on by demagoguery and the use of racial dog whistles by the American right. Charleston, Charlottesville and now Pittsburgh have all become synonymous with the acts of violence committed there by far-right extremists. Yet, while my fellow liberals tend to paint this as an exclusively right-wing phenomena, the far-left has also committed acts of political violence in the past. This is not to make false equivalencies; far-right violence has killed far more people since the 9/11 terrorist attacks than that of any other extremist group. But it would be false to paint political violence as only a right-wing phenomena.

In the late 1960s and 1970s, groups like the Weather Underground bombed buildings in cities across the United States. Less revolutionary groups, including Students for a Democratic Society, gained popularity in many American colleges and universities—including Fordham University. These groups held demonstrations which turned violent, leading to instances in which campus buildings were set alight, including at Columbia University where a student occupation was violently dispersed by riot police. While far fewer people were killed during these actions than have been by recent instances of far-right extremism, they were detrimental to the health of political discourse in the United States, and caused much harm to the optics of the Democratic Party after 1968. Just because one side tends more towards violence at the present moment does not mean the other is immune.

I witnessed the universality of political violence first hand in Northern Ireland, where, this past summer, I studied the troubles in the midst of renewed tensions between Catholics and Protestants in the fallout from Brexit.

In the four weeks I spent in Belfast, I was in earshot of riots, was called a variety of arcane anti-Catholic slurs, observed a large bonfire where protestors burned effigies of Catholic politicians and witnessed an “Orange Parade” in which Loyalist groups boasted of their connections to paramilitaries which had killed Catholic civilians at random. In a suburb of Belfast, the night after the “Orange Parade,” a group of Loyalist Paramilitaries hijacked a bus, forced the passengers off and set it afire in an effort to frighten local Catholics and the authorities. The same week, Catholics in Derry, just 70 miles west of Belfast, rioted in response to a local parade, with members of the “New IRA” throwing molotovs and shooting firearms at police and Protestant residents. These riots in Derry were the worst since the end of the Troubles, a 30 year period in which the same political tensions led to the deaths of 3,500 people, 2,000 of which were civilians. Over 47,000 others were injured in the conflict. The entire population of Northern Ireland, in comparison, is well under two million.

It would take much more than a few lone-wolf attacks to plunge the United States into a level of chaos that would be comparable to Northern Ireland; yet, we should remember that the possibility of violence is always hanging over political discourse. The first step in the escalation of political hatred into physical violence—hyperpolarization—is a phenomenon which has already taken hold amongst the American public, and America’s slip into more open political violence appears to be accelerating.

In light of this, it is essential that all Americans—whether we bend towards the left, right or center—initiate more honest attempts at mutual understanding. The United States has proved to be one of the most stable states for the past two and a half centuries, but no state is immune to political violence. Political violence is not something which stems from attacks by a few radicals, but rather is a societal ill caused by widespread disillusionment with the status quo. When a group of people feels as if its needs are not being met, believes that change cannot be brought and is convinced that it is “under attack” they will often resort to violence in order to achieve their goals. The validity of their perception of persecution matters little in whether they pursue violent recourse. It is the responsibility of our leaders to ensure that these concerns are addressed before violence occurs, and that these groups are not allowed to fall victim to demagoguery.

While the main cause of renewed political violence in the United States stems from irresponsible agitation by figures on the right, all Americans must play a role in resolving it. For liberals, this means that we must no longer ignore the economic plight of the working class and we must make honest attempts to understand American conservatives not as political foes, but as fellow Americans who are trying to create a better world as they see it.

All Americans must debate uncomfortable topics, challenge our presupposed beliefs and make concessions for the sake of political stability. As members of a democratic society, we must take nothing at face value and understand that every American has a role to play in the political process.
We cannot isolate ourselves in a bubble of like-minded individuals, even if leaving this bubble risks bringing us discomfort. Americans of all political beliefs must be united if we do not wish to risk descending into a state in which acts of political violence—such as the attempted mail bombings and the Pittsburgh attack—will become the norm.

Collin Bonnell, FCRH ’21, is a history and political science major from Hingham, Massachusetts.

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Political Violence and How to Avoid It