Political Violence in America

I have been meaning to write about this topic for several days now, in part because of Cheney and the right-wing movement's proud defense of torture, and in part because of having finally finished (after much delay because of my book tour) Rick Perlstein's masterful book Nixonland. I got started yesterday morning, and then got the terrible news about Dr. Tiller, and had to stop for awhile. I hesitated to keep writing because I want to be careful with tying this terrible event to the conservative movement, and indeed I want to start with some caveats. But there are some things that just have to be said on this dark day.

My first caveat is a big one, and an obvious one: most conservatives do not in any way support this kind of political terrorism, and are in fact saddened by it. There is no question about that, and I think when discussing the issue of political violence and American fascism, we should be very clear about that important point.

In addition, I think it is extremely important that progressives be very slow and very careful in calling conservatives fascist or supporters of political violence unless they actually show themselves to be that. A person may passionately believe, for example, that abortion is murder, and still strongly oppose any kind of domestic terrorism.

One final caveat: if you look back at the history of political violence in America, as I do in my book The Progressive Revolution: How The Best In America Came To Be, there is no question that progressive-minded folks have also engaged in political violence. The Revolutionary War, the Civil War and World War II were all led by progressives and you don't get much more violent than a war (not that I would have opposed those wars, I would have supported them). John Brown in the 1850s believed and fought for a violent slave rebellion, and occasionally leftist leaders in the 1960s went over the line and committed acts of violence. And anarchists assassinated William McKinley in 1901.

Having said all of that, though, it is also undeniably true that there is a dangerous and virulent streak of violence and fascism in American conservatism, now and throughout our country's history.

Conservatives in the South who vehemently and violently defended and fought for slavery and Jim Crow are the most obvious example: From the vicious caning of political opponents on the floor of the Senate, to the fighting of the bloody Civil War, to the gunning down of hundreds of freed slaves in the reconstruction era, to the lynching of thousand of African-Americans in the 90 years after the Civil War, to all of the horrible violence of the civil rights struggles in the 1950s and 60s, the story of race relations in the South has been long and incredibly bloody. The North wasn't exactly pure on race issues either, from the mass murder of blacks in Tulsa in 1921 to the rock throwing mobs of Chicago greeting Martin Luther King.

Racial violence hasn't been the only from of political violence by those opposed to progressive change in this country either. Labor leaders have been assassinated; women suffragists and other progressive reformers have been tarred and feathered, and violently harassed. Tim McVeigh, the perpetrator of the country's biggest single act of domestic terrorism was a far right-wing, militia activist. Sadly, the Tiller killing is only the latest in a long string of anti-abortion activists bombing clinics and murdering people.

Even more serious, though, is the kind of domestic political violence we have seen by certain politicians. Everyone should read Nixonland, which shows the depth of depravity of the kind of political movement Richard Nixon was leading - blatantly breaking the law right and left, seriously considering the firebombing of a think tank they didn't like, gloating over gunning down the four students at Kent State.

This is the administration Dick Cheney, Karl Rove, Donald Rumsfeld, Pat Buchanan, George H.W. Bush, G. Gordon Liddy, and many other modern day conservatives happily and proudly worked for. It is no wonder that we see them today so blithely defending the violation of the Geneva Convention and our own Bill of Rights. These are political leaders who have no qualms about torturing people, either, which is perhaps the ultimate example of political violence.

Just as political conservatives of an earlier generation had no problems aligning themselves with segregationists of the South while mobs were beating freedom riders almost to death, Bill Connor was sicking German Shepherds on children, and terrorists were firebombing churches with little girls inside them, there is a virulent strain of political conservatism today that is not troubled by political violence. Let us hope that progressives win the day over this kind of conservatism. If we don't, I think it is safe to say we should fear for our country.