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Another 'Civil War'? Pessimism About Political Violence Deepens In A Divided Nation

Oct 31, 2018
Originally published on October 31, 2018 11:49 pm

The deadly synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh, the killing of two African-Americans in Kentucky and the wave of improvised explosive devices aimed at critics of President Trump all happened just within the past week.

And they all coincide with deep national pessimism about the outlook for peaceful politics in the United States.

Last year, after a shooter opened fire on Republican lawmakers at a baseball practice outside Washington, D.C., a CBS News poll found that 73 percent of Americans felt the tone of the political debate encourages violence.

Since then the concept of a new civil war has seeped out into the open, especially on the right.

"The Civil War on America's Horizon," reads a headline in last month's The American Conservative. On Townhall.com, a Trump supporter imagined how a civil war would turn out, in an article titled "Why Democrats Would Lose the Second Civil War, Too."

Meanwhile, The Federalist ran an op-ed advocating the breakup of the United States, arguing that it "may seem a bit outlandish now, but you won't think so once real domestic unrest comes to your town."

The extreme fringe has also picked up on the notion.

Here's how one anonymous person framed a threat to The New York Times' Ken Vogel on his voicemail earlier this year. Vogel posted the recording on Twitter.

"You are the enemy of the people. And although the pen might be mightier than the sword, the pen is not mightier than the AK-47," the caller said. "And just remember Ken, there's nothing civil about civil war."

Uncivil discourse

Carolyn Lukensmeyer is the head of the National Institute for Civil Discourse at the University of Arizona. The organization was formed after a shooting injured then-Arizona Democratic Rep. Gabby Giffords in 2011. The incident also killed six and wounded 12 others.

"I have to say that I've been surprised at the number of times where we're holding a discussion ... across differences and someone will actually say that they believe we could come to a civil war again in the United States," she told NPR.

But then, she said, many people back off from their initial conclusions: "They do say, 'No, I don't really believe that we'll have a civil war, but I find some of what I see happening frightening enough to think of it that way.' "

Experts who study violent conflict in foreign nations say they are now seeing worrying similarities here at home.

"I already think we've seen some pretty dangerous signs, the most important of which is the demonization of opponents," said Sheri Berman, a professor of political science at Barnard College. "The second step is seeing people as unable to be dealt with or compromised with, and that can fairly easily slip into more extreme kinds of behavior."

Mike Jobbins works for Search for Common Ground, a nonprofit that tries to reduce political violence abroad in places like Burundi, Congo and Yemen. He told NPR that violence breaks out when people no longer feel they can work with others in a different societal group.

"Prior to some of these conflicts that erupted you see a drop in the capacity to deal with one another, and to focus on one sort of prevailing identity," he said. "That's something we see here in the U.S. as we look at some of the partisan political divisions."

Polarization — and political violence — are far from unprecedented in America. Between January 1969 and April 1970, the United States experienced 4,330 bombings, according to The New York Times.

"I came of age during the Vietnam War, so I came of age in a time in which differences on policy issues did lead to violent civil protest, that did lead to blood in the streets, so do I think it is possible? It's part of my own life experience," said Lukensmeyer.

The way to prevent disagreements from becoming violence, according to experts in civil conflict, is to be more open to those with whom you disagree.

"The biggest challenge that many people have in their own lives is really in taking the first step to — when you disagree with someone, to listen first," Jobbins said. "I think as you look at the U.S. today, we are entering a period of conflict ... but even if conflict is inevitable, violence is not."

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The U.S. has had three alarming incidents in a matter of days - the shooting at a synagogue in Pittsburgh, another at a supermarket in Louisville, Ky., and the bomb scare, suspicious packages mailed to prominent Democrats. These raise the question - are we entering a period of increased political violence in the country? NPR's Tim Mak has our story.

TIM MAK, BYLINE: Last year, after a shooter opened fire on Republican lawmakers at a baseball practice outside Washington, a CBS News poll found that 73 percent of Americans felt the tone of the political debate encourages violence. Carolyn Lukensmeyer is the head of the National Institute for Civil Discourse, formed after another shooting injured Congresswoman Gabby Giffords in 2011. The incident killed six and wounded 13.

CAROLYN LUKENSMEYER: I have to say, Tim, I've been surprised at the number of times where we're in - we're holding a discussion. We're holding a conversation across differences, and someone will actually say that they believe we could come to a civil war again in the United States.

MAK: But then she said many people back off from their initial conclusions.

LUKENSMEYER: They do say, no, I don't really believe that we'll have a civil war, but I find some of what I see happening frightening enough to think of it that way.

MAK: Modern civil conflicts don't have to involve marching armies or Pickett's Charge. Conflicts emerge when episodes of political violence become more sustained. So could it happen in our era? Here's Lukensmeyer again.

LUKENSMEYER: I came of age during the Vietnam War. So I came of age in a time in which differences on policy issues did lead to violent civil protest, that did lead to blood in the streets. So I - do I believe this is possible? It's part of my own life experience.

MAK: And the concept of a civil war is seeping out into the open, especially on the right. "The Civil War On America's Horizon" reads a headline in last month's The American conservative. And on townhall.com, a Trump supporter imagined how a civil war would turn out in "Why Democrats Would Lose The Second Civil War, Too." The extreme fringe has also picked up on this notion. Here's how one anonymous person framed a threat earlier this year to The New York Times' Ken Vogel. Vogel saved the voicemail and shared it on Twitter.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: You are the enemy of the people, and although the pen might be mightier than the sword, the pen is not mightier than the AK-47. And just remember, Ken, there's nothing civil about a civil war.

MAK: And experts on civil wars in foreign nations are now seeing worrying similarities here at home. Mike Jobbins works for Search for Common Ground, a nonprofit that tries to reduce political violence abroad in places like Burundi, Congo and Yemen.

MIKE JOBBINS: Prior to some of these conflicts that erupted, you see a drop in the capacity to deal with one another and to focus on one sort of prevailing identity and a sense that you can't necessarily interact or work together with someone from a different identity group. That's something we see here in the U.S. as we look at some of the partisan political divisions.

MAK: The way to prevent disagreements from becoming violence, according to experts in civil conflict, is to be more open to those with whom we disagree.

JOBBINS: The biggest challenge that many people have in their own lives is really taking the first step to not - when you disagree with someone, to listen first.

MAK: That's Jobbins again.

JOBBINS: I think as you look at the U.S. today, we're entering a period of conflict. But, you know, even if conflict is inevitable, violence is not.

MAK: Both the way we talk about politics and the way we listen about politics, these experts say, have a profound influence on the direction of this country. Tim Mak, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF HINT'S "SHOUT OF BLUE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.