America's Next Insurgency.

AuthorBlock, Daniel

The January 6 violence could signal the start of nationwide conflict not seen since the Civil War. Can we stop it?

Bleeding Kansas started with an eviction attempt. In late 1854, Jacob Branson, an abolitionist from Ohio, began trying to kick Franklin Coleman, a slavery proponent, off his property. Roughly a year later, Coleman ran into a friend of Branson's at a local blacksmith's shop. The friend berated Coleman for continuing to squat on the land and demanded that he desist. It's not clear what, if anything, Coleman said in response. But it is clear what he did. As the friend walked away, Coleman took out a gun and killed him.

Fearing reprisal in what was a largely antislavery community, Coleman fled to a nearby town and turned himself in to a proslavery sheriff. That sheriff promptly freed him and then arrested Branson. Local abolitionists, many of whom were already furious about the murder, grew incensed. They intercepted the sheriff at gunpoint and liberated his prisoner.

News of the murder, arrest, and jailbreak spread rapidly across Kansas. Both proslavery and antislavery activists formed militias, and it wasn't long before violence began to erupt. On May 21, 1856, 800 slavery supporters sacked the city of Lawrence--home to the state's antislavery leaders--looting houses and murdering one resident. In response, a group of abolitionists led by John Brown killed five proslavery settlers in Franklin County. Hundreds of slavery supporters retaliated by attacking an antislavery settlement in the town of Osawatomie, murdering several locals and burning most of the town to the ground. Abolitionists then drove proslavery forces out of Linn County. Slavery proponents next pulled 11 antislavery settlers from their homes and shot them down.

Bleeding Kansas is, per its name, most famous for the bloodshed. But the clash went further than raids. The two camps established rival territorial administrations, each claiming to represent the entirety of the state. They drafted their own constitutions, passed their own laws, and egged on their side's combatants. Both petitioned Washington for official recognition. But the U.S. capital, itself polarized by disputes over America's original sin, was unable to settle which group ought to be in command. It was not until the South seceded that Kansas was finally admitted to the Union.

There are many critical differences between the 1850s and today. The government is now far more expansive and powerful than it was in the antebellum era. There is no modern problem as singular and overriding as slavery was; we are instead polarized over many issues. And while there are geographic dimensions to our divisions, they are not nearly as clean as those that once split the U.S. Much like territorial Kansas, almost every American state has its own union and its own confederacy.

But there are also clear parallels. The present United States may be more polarized than it has been at any time since the 1850s. Large swaths of the population simply refuse to accept the election of political opponents as legitimate. Many of the social issues that divide us, in particular questions of systemic discrimination, stem from slavery.

Most frighteningly, research suggests that a growing number of Americans believe that political violence is acceptable. In a 2017 survey by the political scientists Lilliana Mason and Nathan Kalmoe, 18 percent of Democrats and 12 percent of Republicans said that violence would be at least a little justified if the opposing party won the presidency. In February 2021, those numbers increased to 20 percent and 28 percent, respectively. Other researchers have found an even bigger appetite for extreme activity. In a January poll conducted by the American Enterprise Institute, researchers asked respondents whether "the traditional American way of life is disappearing so fast that we may have to use force to save it." Thirty-six percent of Americans, and an astounding 56 percent of Republicans, said yes.

All of this raises a serious question: Could the United States experience prolonged, acute civil violence?

According to dozens of interviews with former and current government officials, counterterrorism researchers, and political scientists who study both the U.S. and other countries, the answer is yes. "I think that the conditions are pretty clearly headed in that direction," says Katrina Mulligan, the managing director for national security and international policy at the Center for American Progress and the former director for preparedness and response in the national security division at the Department of Justice (DOJ). The insurrection on "January 6 was a canary in the coal mine in a way, precisely because it wasn't a surprise to those of us who have been following this."

"Unfortunately, I think it's a heightened risk," Janet Napolitano, the former secretary of homeland security, told me. As evidence, she cited the Capitol attack, as well as "the rhetoric that's being exchanged on social media, and just the number of groups out there that are organized and don't seem reticent about using violence."

Scholars of conflict differed in their estimates of how much violence might erupt, from sporadic terrorist attacks to a sustained insurgency. Individual assaults could be successfully handled by local and state police, but they could also easily escalate into a broader conflagration requiring federal involvement and inspiring copycat attacks. Experts also listed a wide range of potential targets, from Democratic politicians and institutions affiliated with minority groups to city halls and state government buildings.

But officials and researchers overwhelmingly agreed on the main source of the threat: the radical right. Despite overwrought warnings of "antifa," it has been extreme conservatives who have driven into crowds of protestors, killing liberal activists. No leftists have murdered police officers or security guards, as right-wing fanatics did last summer in California. Progressives have not called for a race war or the bloody overthrow of the federal government. "Primarily, this is a far-right problem," Napolitano said. "We saw it pretty clearly expressed on January 6."

That, however, could shift. The modern American left does have a violent tradition. During the 1960s and '70s, groups including the Weather Underground bombed banks, statues, and major government buildings. The Black Lives Matter protests in the summer of 2020 were overwhelmingly peaceful, but some demonstrators looted stores and destroyed police vehicles. And when Donald Trump's supporters protested in Portland wielding paintball guns, the far-left activist Michael Reinoehl shot and killed one of them. His justification--self-defense--is both inexcusable and telling. If right-wing agitators continue down an increasingly extreme trajectory, and if the state does not stop them, it is easy to imagine liberals becoming increasingly less pacifistic.

Unfortunately, none of the officials I spoke with thought that any agency--from local and state law enforcement to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the armed forces--is fully prepared for the challenges posed by domestic terrorism. At least for federal employees, this should be expected. After four years of working under an administration that courted extremism rather than combated it, many bureaucrats and officers are just getting up to speed.

"In my entire 40 years in the military, from Annapolis to supreme allied commander of NATO, I never gave a thought to these challenges," says James Stavridis, a retired four-star...

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