Whenever Congresspeople are shot, whenever there is political violence in the United States, one has to wonder how long this imperfect union can last.
We’ve had one before, after all. A titanic struggle that cost more lives per capita than any other war, a struggle over not only over slavery but over the very identity of these United States.
Last summer, Micah Xavier Johnson ambushed and murdered five police officers in Dallas, Texas, in retaliation for the killings of black men by other police officers around the country. It was a brutal political act, but one that has echoes in American history, in Oklahoma City, the Weathermen bombings, the Wall Street bombing of 1920, and, of course, John Brown’s famous raid of Harper’s Ferry in 1859.
It’s the final one that comes most often to mind in the wake of lone wolf attacks, for if there is the original lone American lone wolf, it is John Brown.
Brown, a fanatical abolitionist, had first spilled blood in Bleeding Kansas and then concluded that he had to strike at the heart of American slavery. He and his sons attacked the Federal Arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia, hoping to seize its guns and spark a nationwide slave uprising. They were killed before they could do so (by troops under Robert E. Lee, no less), but the violence convinced many in the North and South that their differences would be resolved not by the ballot but by the bullet.
Has America come to that yet? Was Micah Xavier Johnson a 21st century John Brown? Was James Hodgkinson, the alleged shooter in today’s attack on Republican Congresspeople?
It’s worth asking.
According to Richard Jackson, publishing in Cambridge University Press, a civil war is a war “in which a variety of state-based and non-state groups engage in an organized military conflict.” It is, in other words, a war of groups, not a war of lone wolves. There must be cells, militias, even full armies before one can be said there’s a civil war. That’s key, for jumping to conclusion that each shooting, bombing, or terror attack is the first shot of a second American Civil War creates media hyperventilation but little enduring understanding.
For the U.S. to have a civil war, two or more sides need to organize, arm themselves, and commit to violence. Arming oneself in the U.S. is an easy task – the country is awash in guns beyond its already considerable military arsenal. However, are there factions in the United States that are embarking on this course?
At least, not yet.
There are factions emerging on both Left and Right – the Antifa on the Left, the Militia movement on the Right – but so far none of their members have engaged in anything more than small-scale street fights. Dramatic as the images from Berkeley may be, they are, at the end of the day, little more than vandalism. The real violence in American society is being conducted by lone wolves, from identity supremacists of all stripes to self-radicalized shooters like Mr. Hodgkinson. While Bleeding Kansas endured roving militias who battled back and forth over the issue of slavery, the Trump era, and the Obama years before it, have suffered from neigh-unstoppable self-directed, self-appointed murderers. Dylann Roof of the Charleston shooting had no commanding officer to direct him. Neither did accused Chelsea bomber Ahmad Rahimi, who claimed allegiance to the very real terror army that is the Islamic State. Yet IS did not give Rahimi anything more than the materials needed to radicalize himself.
None of their attacks have forced other groups to organize and arms themselves to retaliate. All have been dealt with by normal law enforcement.
Conversely, John Brown’s assault on Harper’s Ferry spooked powerful pro-slavery groups, especially Southern legislatures and governors, who had behind them well-armed state militias at a time when the United States military was curiously quite disarmed. In December 1860, the U.S. Army had only 16,000 troops. When Southern states considering seceding from the Union, they knew that the Federal government had few soldiers to stop them.
That’s a huge contrast with today’s 1.4 million active troops spread across the 50 states. If someone wants to spark a civil war in the United States today, they must contend with the very real possibility that they will be killed or captured very quickly. Mr. Hodgkinson surely knew that as he embarked on his shooting today. As far as we currently know, he did not hope to inspire a full-on revolt of liberals, as Brown tried at Harper’s Ferry. He was just another mass shooter, this time targeting Congresspeople.
For America to approach a civil war, it must see groups committed to violence able to carry out a long-term campaign of shootings and bombings. That was very much America in the 1850s, when a feckless Federal government, disarmed and divided, watched Kansas bleed until the violence spread nationwide. It’s nearly impossible to imagine Washington allowing whole states or cities to do the same today without sending in some of its many troops. No matter what you think of Trump, at least he has a professional army behind him, unlike President James Buchanan.
Instead, we may need to brace ourselves for a new wave of mass shootings. Politically-minded lone wolves may decide to escalate our mean Tweet barrages to actual ammunition. If we are doomed to endure violence, it will surely be unpredictable, disorganized, and conducted by very lonely people.
[Featured image by Zach Gibson/Getty Images]