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Warning signs of mass violence – in the US?Max Pensky, Binghamton University, State University of New York and Nadia Rubaii, Binghamton University, State University of New York
And yet, there has been no dearth of such comparisons since the 2016 presidential election. Many commentators have also drawn parallels between the conduct of Trump supporters and Holocaust-era Nazis.
The comparisons continue today, and Trump’s comments in the wake of the Charlottesville attack show why. The president’s reference to violence on “both sides” implies moral equivalence, which is a familiar rhetorical strategy for signaling support to violent groups. His comments give white supremacists and neo-Nazis the implied approval of the president of the United States.
Many of these groups explicitly seek to eliminate from the U.S. African-Americans, Jews, immigrants and other groups, and are willing to do so through violence. As co-directors of Binghamton University’s Institute for Genocide and Mass Atrocity Prevention, we emphasize the importance of recognizing and responding to early warning signs of genocide and atrocity crimes. Usually, government officials, scholars and nongovernmental organizations look for these warning signs in other parts of the world – Syria, Sudan or Burma.
Has the time come to watch for these warning signs in the United States?
Is it possible in the US?
The term “genocide” invokes images of gas chambers the Nazis used to exterminate Jews during World War II, the Khmer Rouge killing fields of Cambodia and thousands of Tutsi bodies in the Kagera River in Rwanda. On that scale and in that manner, genocide is highly unlikely in the United States.
But genocidal violence can happen in the U.S. It has happened. Organized policies passed by elected U.S. lawmakers have targeted both Native Americans and African-Americans. The threat of genocide is present wherever a country’s political leadership tolerates or even encourages acts with an intent to destroy a racial, ethnic, national or religious group, whether in whole or in part.
The Holocaust took the international community by surprise. In hindsight, there were many signs. In fact, scholars have learned a great deal about the danger signals for the risk of large-scale violence against vulnerable groups.
In 1996, the founder and first president of the U.S.-based advocacy group Genocide Watch, Gregory H. Stanton, introduced a model that identified eight stages – later increased to 10 – that societies frequently pass through on the way to genocidal violence. Stanton’s model has its critics. Like any such model, it can’t be applied in all cases and can’t predict the future. But it has been influential in our understanding of the sources of mass violence in Rwanda, Burma, Syria and other nations.
The 10 stages of genocide
The early stages of Stanton’s model include “classification” and “symbolization.” These are processes in which groups of people are saddled with labels or imagined characteristics that encourage active discrimination. These stages emphasize “us versus them” thinking, and define a group as “the other.”
As Stanton makes clear, these processes are universally human. They do not necessarily result in a progression toward mass violence. But they prepare the ground for the next stages: active “discrimination,” “dehumanization,” “organization” and “polarization.” These middle stages may be warning signs of an increasing risk of large-scale violence.
Where are we now?
Trump’s political rhetoric helped propel him into office by playing on the fears and resentments of the electorate. He labeled out-groups, hinted at dark conspiracies, winked at violence and appealed to nativist and nationalist sentiments. He has demanded discriminatory policies including travel restrictions and gender-based exclusions.
Classification, symbolization, discrimination and dehumanization of Muslims, Mexicans, African-Americans, the media and even the political opposition may be leading to polarization, stage six of Stanton’s model.
Stanton writes that polarization further drives wedges between social groups through extremism. Hate groups find an opening to send messages that further dehumanize and demonize targeted groups. Political moderates are edged out of the political arena, and extremist groups attempt to move from the former political fringes into mainstream politics.
Do Trump’s implied claims of a moral equivalence between neo-Nazis and counterprotesters in Charlottesville move us closer to the stage of polarization?
Certainly, there are reasons for deep concern. Moral equivalence – the claim that when both “sides” in a conflict use similar tactics, then one “side” must be as morally good or bad as the other – is what logicians call an informal fallacy. Philosophers take their red pens to student essays that commit it. But when a president is called on to address his nation in times of political turmoil, the claim of moral equivalence is a lot more than an undergraduate mistake. We suggest this is a deliberate effort to polarize, and an invitation to what comes after polarization.
Responding and preventing
Polarization is a warning of the increased risk of violence, not a guarantee. Stanton’s model also argues that every stage offers opportunities for prevention. Extremist groups can have their financial assets frozen. Hate crimes and hate atrocities can be more consistently investigated and prosecuted. Moderate politicians, human rights activists, representatives of threatened groups and members of the independent media can be provided increased security.
Encouraging responses have come from the electorate, business leaders, government officials and the international community. Individuals and groups are following the recommendations for action presented in the Southern Poverty Law Center’s guide to combating hate in supporting victims, speaking up, pressuring leaders and staying engaged. Business leaders have also expressed their discontent with Trump’s polarizing statements.
Several international leaders have also spoken up. German Chancellor Angela Merkel condemned the racist and far-right violence displayed in Charlottesville, and U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May harshly criticized Trump’s use of moral equivalence.
In our assessment, these actions represent essential forms of resistance to the movement toward polarization, and they reduce the risks of genocide.
Max Pensky, Co-Director, Institute for Genocide and Mass Atrocity Prevention, Professor, Department of Philosophy, Binghamton University, State University of New York and Nadia Rubaii, Co-Director, Institute for Genocide and Mass Atrocity Prevention, and Associate Professor of Public Administration, Binghamton University, State University of New York
Charlottesville and the politics of fearDavid Alpher, George Mason University
I have spent nearly 16 years studying how the risk of violence grows in societies around the world and running programs designed to stem the tide. I have seen toxic rhetoric from political leaders result in violence in countries like Iraq and Kenya.
On August 12, the same thing happened in Charlottesville, Virginia. The violent clash there came about in part because of a resonance between President Donald Trump’s language and domestic extremist groups who see a doorway open to their goals – goals most Americans have long thought buried for good.
This homegrown horror represents a potentially greater threat than any we face from foreign terrorist groups. Foreign groups can certainly kill, but they have no power to divide our society. That deeper threat belongs to us alone – but the solution is also in our hands.
Fear and anger make for strong motivation
Let’s consider how the president’s words have encouraged violence.
This quote from Trump, speaking at a rally in West Virginia, predates the angry clash in Charlottesville by just nine days:
The counterprotesters in Charlottesville – one of whom was killed – are implicitly among the “they” in this speech.
The language Trump uses resembles the language Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro is currently using to galvanize anti-protest violence, declaring his willingness to take up arms in patriotic terms: “If Venezuela was plunged into chaos and violence and the Bolivarian Revolution destroyed, we would go to combat… We would never give up, and what couldn’t be done with votes, we would do with weapons.” Trump’s language also echoes language right-wing extremist and white supremacist groups use to define the conditions under which violence – toward the government or towards other citizens they see as enemies – becomes legitimate in their worldview.
Trump’s rhetoric doesn’t come out of nowhere. Going back at least to the “southern strategy” in the 1960s, the GOP has spent decades mobilizing fear and anger. As candidates, Republican presidents like George H.W. Bush leveraged fear to secure votes from the white, Christian, male and ideologically extreme demographic to offset the party’s growing distance from an increasingly diverse and progressive American society. Trump’s use of the same tropes is not an aberration, but the culmination of this tactic.
By mirroring extremists’ language, Trump encourages groups already primed for violence by suggesting that the enemy and the situation they have prepared for are present here and now. By refusing to clearly denounce the extremists – and suggesting a moral equivalency between right-wing violence and counterprotesters – he further excuses and reinforces the idea that the right’s violence is defensible, honorable and legitimate.
The patriot paradox
We’ve heard this language from within the “patriot movement” for a long time.
Consider the following words, spoken by Timothy McVeigh in an interview explaining why he bombed the Murrah Building in Oklahoma City, killing 168 people and wounding nearly 700 more.
Every extremist group in history describes its own violence as the legitimate response to a threat that was forced on them. In a South African white supremacist paramilitary training camp, recruits are told “South Africa is bleeding… And this is why we have to train our people to be prepared. There’s millions and millions of blacks around you, smothering you… and killing you… So you have to implement certain systems to survive…” This is the same sentiment reflected in the Rhodesian flag worn by the white supremacist Dylann Roof, convicted of killing nine at an African-American church in South Carolina.
When right-wing extremists and white supremacists view Trump critics, “liberals” and progressive protesters as enemies of the state – and therefore legitimate targets – they feel emboldened to demonstrate more overtly. Indeed, Trump’s anti-elite accusations and claims that the “lying media” is the enemy of the American people hold significantly the same meaning as McVeigh’s words.
American extremist websites exhort the belief that they are defending the Constitution, stopping the theft of the political process from the people and resisting takeover by hostile powers. They draw on the narrative that true Americans are not only able but expected to throw off such oppression.
Even before 20-year-old James Alex Fields drove his car into the crowd on August 12, individual acts of violence linked to racism and extremist American politics were on the increase. In Trump’s presidency, a pattern of increasing hate crimes has continued to grow.
In Charlottesville, white supremacists shouted “Jews will not replace us.” Meanwhile, Eric Trump denounces his father’s critics as “not even people.” They’re the same dehumanizing echoes used to justify levels of violence from cruelty to genocide.
What can be done?
As criticism for Trump’s Charlottesville stance grows, his popularity wanes. The president is becoming increasingly reliant on campaign-style speeches to connect with those who still support him. We must be on guard for the rhetoric of theft and threat, and the implicit call to violence, to intensify.
Many years of experience in dealing with extremism has taught me the threat can be reduced – first and foremost through consistent political involvement by the greatest possible number of people; a strong, united stand against fear and anger; and communication between communities and security providers.
The Department of Homeland Security’s focus on analyzing and countering domestic terrorism, dismantled under Trump, should be rebuilt. The October 2016 strategy for countering violent extremism, which stresses community policing and inclusive governance, should be expanded and improved as a model for cities and states as well as the nation.
Political radicalism isn’t inherently bad. Indeed, the American Revolution wouldn’t have happened without it. The violence perpetrated by domestic radicals, however, cannot be condoned. A former IRA soldier in Northern Ireland once told me of the peace process there, “just because a wave breaks on the beach doesn’t mean the tide isn’t going out.” For Americans horrified at this violence, it’s important to remember that there is no endpoint in politics – only process. What’s wrong now can be changed.
This is an updated version of an article originally published on May 31, 2016.
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