Books

Chris Hedges: America's Addiction to Violence—From War to Vigilante Mobs—Is A Conservative Legacy

This may help to explain why so little of it has been used against state authority.

Photo Credit: Shutterstock.com/Jeffrey B. Banke

The following is an excerpt from  Wages of Rebellion: The Moral Imperative of Revolt by Chris Hedges, (Nation Books, 2015):

My father and most of my uncles fought in World War II. One uncle was severely maimed, physically and psychologically, in the South Pacific and drank himself to death. I was in Central America in the 1980s during the proxy wars waged by Washington. I accompanied a Marine Corps battalion as it battled Iraqi troops into Kuwait during the first Gulf War. My family history intersects with the persistent patterns of violence that are a constant in American life, both at home and abroad. Any rebellion must contend with this endemic American violence, especially vigilante violence, as well as the sickness of the gun culture that is its natural expression. As it has done throughout American history, the state, under siege, will turn to extrajudicial groups of armed thugs to repress populist movements. Radical change in America is paid for with blood.

There are some 310 million firearms in the United States, including 114 million handguns, 110 million rifles, and 86 million shotguns. There is no reliable data on the number of military-style assault weapons in private hands, but the working estimate is about 1.5 million. The United States has the highest rate of gun ownership in the world—an average of 89 per 100 people, according to the 2007 Small Arms Survey. By comparison, Canada has 31 per 100 people. Canada usually sees under 200 gun-related homicides a year. Our addiction to violence and bloodletting—which will continue to grow—marks a nation in terminal decline.

SPONSORED

The view of ourselves as divine agents of purification anointed by God and progress to reconfigure the world around us is a myth that remains firmly embedded in the American psyche. Most of our historians, with only a few exceptions—such as Eric Foner, Howard Zinn, Richard Hofstadter, and Richard Slotkin—studiously avoid addressing these patterns of violence. They examine a single foreign war. They chronicle an isolated incident, such as the draft riots in New York during the Civil War. They write about the Indian wars. They detail the cruelty of Jim Crow and lynching. They do not see in the totality of our military adventures—including our bloody occupation of the Philippines, when General Jacob H. Smith ordered his troops to kill every Filipino over the age of ten and turn the island of Samar into “a howling wilderness”—a universal truth about the American soul and the naturalness with which we turn to violence at home and abroad. We suffer from a dangerous historical amnesia and self-delusional fantasies about the virtues and goodness of ourselves and of empire. We have masked our cultural propensity for widespread and indiscriminate murder. “The essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer,” D. H. Lawrence wrote. “It has never yet melted.”

Violence in America is not restricted to state violence. There is a tradition of vigilante violence that is used, usually with the state’s tacit if unofficial blessing, to crush dissent, to keep repressed minorities in a state of fear, or to exact revenge on those the state has branded as traitors. It is a product of hatred, not hope. It is directed against the weak, not the strong. And it is deeply ingrained in the American psyche.

America has been formed and shaped by slave patrols, gunslingers, Pinkerton and Baldwin-Felts detectives, gangs of strikebreakers, hired gun thugs, company militias, and the American Legion—originally right-wing World War I veterans who attacked union agitators, especially those belonging to the Industrial Workers of the World (the “Wobblies”). The influence on the country of the White Citizens’ Council, the White League—which carried out public military drills and functioned as the armed wing of the Democratic Party in the South—the Knights of the White Camelia, and the Ku Klux Klan—which boasted more than 3 million members between 1915 and 1944 and took over the governance of some states—has been equally profound.6 More recently, heavily armed mercenary paramilitaries, violent Cuban exile groups, and armed militias such as the Oath Keepers and the anti-immigration extremist group Ranch Rescue have perpetuated America’s seamless tradition of vigilantism.

These vigilante groups have been tolerated, and often encouraged and utilized, by the ruling elite. And roaming the landscape along with these vigilante groups have been lone gunmen and mass killers who murder for money or power or to appease their own personal demons.

Vigilante groups in America do not trade violence for violence. They are mostly white men who often prey on people of color and radicals. They are capitalism’s ideological vanguard, its shock troops used to break populist movements and tyrannize the oppressed. And they will be unleashed against any mass movement that seriously threatens the structures of capitalist power and calls for rebellion. Imagine if, instead of right-wing militias, so-called ecoterrorists—who have never been found responsible for taking a single American life—had showed up armed in Nevada on April 12, 2014, to challenge the federal government’s attempt to thwart rancher Cliven Bundy from continuing to graze his cattle on public land. How would the authorities have responded if those carrying guns had been from the environmental group Earth First? What if they had been black?

The long struggle to abolish slavery, then to free blacks from the reign of terror after the Civil War, and to build labor unions and organize for workers’ rights—these movements flushed from the bowels of American society the thugs who found a sense of self-worth and intoxicating power in their role as armed vigilantes. In America, such thugs have always worked for minimal pay and the license to use indiscriminate violence against those branded as anti-American.

It was armed vigilantes who in 1914 attacked a tent encampment of workers in Ludlow, Colorado. The vigilantes set tents on fire, burning to death eleven children and two women. This brutality characterized the labor wars of the early twentieth century. Vigilante groups working on behalf of coal, steel, and mining concerns gunned down hundreds of unarmed labor organizers. Thousands more were wounded. The United States had the most violent labor wars in the industrialized world, as the scholars Philip Taft and Philip Ross have documented.8 And murderous rampages by these vigilante groups, almost always in the pay of companies or oligarchs, were sanctioned even though no American labor union ever publicly called for an armed uprising. There is no American immigrant group, from Chinese laborers to the Irish, who have not suffered the wrath of armed vigilantes. And African Americans know too intimately how judicial systems work to protect white vigilantes and police who gun down unarmed black men, women, and children. There is a long, tragic continuum from the murders and lynching of blacks following Emancipation to the strangulation on July 17, 2014, of Eric Garner in Staten Island by police who charged him with selling loose, untaxed cigarettes, as well as the shooting to death on August 9, 2014, in Ferguson, Missouri, of an unarmed African American teenager, Michael Brown, by a white police officer. It is lynching by another name. The police officers who carried out these murders, offering a window into a court system that routinely ignores black suffering and murder, were never charged with a crime. And the longer this continues the more likely become random and violent acts of retaliation, which the state will label terrorism and use to justify odious forms of repression. Once this eruption happens, as American history has illustrated, white vigilantes, along with the organs of state security, are given carte blanche to attack and even murder those who are demonized as enemies of the state.

Vigilante thugs serve the interests of the power elites, as in the case involving the Nevada rancher who made war, in essence, on behalf of corporations that seek to eradicate public ownership of land. These vigilantes revel in a demented hypermasculinity. They champion a racist nationalism and sexism. And they have huge megaphones on the airwaves, funded by the most retrograde forces in American capitalism. The gang violence in poor, urban neighborhoods in cities like Chicago or Detroit credentializes these vigilante groups and stokes the inchoate fear of blacks among whites that lies at the core of the gun culture and American vigilantism.

The raison d’être given by vigilante groups for the need to bear arms is that guns protect us from tyranny. Guns keep us safe in our homes. Guns are the bulwark of liberty. But history does not support this contention. The Communist Party during the rise of fascism in Nazi Germany did not lack for weapons. Throughout the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, citizens had assault weapons in their homes. During the war in Yugoslavia, AK-47 assault rifles were almost as common in households as stoves. I watched in Iraq and Yugoslavia as heavily armed units encircled houses and those inside walked out with their hands in the air, leaving their assault rifles behind.

American vigilantes will act no differently if members of the US Army or SWAT teams surround their homes. When 10,000 armed coal miners at Blair Mountain in West Virginia rose up in 1921 for the right to form unions and held gun thugs and company militias at bay for five days, the government called in the Army.9 The miners were not suicidal. When the Army arrived, they disbanded. And faced with the full weight of the US military, armed vigilante groups today will disband as well. The militias in Nevada might have gotten the Bureau of Land Management to back down, but they would have scattered like a flock of frightened crows if the government had sent in the 101st Airborne.

The engine of vigilante violence is not fear of government. It is the fear by white people of the black underclass and of the radicals who champion the cause of the oppressed. The black underclass has been enslaved, lynched, imprisoned, and impoverished for centuries. The white vigilantes do not acknowledge the reality of this oppression, but at the same time they are deeply worried about retribution directed against whites. Guns, for this reason, are made easily available to white people, while gun ownership is largely criminalized for blacks. The hatred expressed by vigilante groups for people of color, along with Jews and Muslims, is matched by their hatred for the college-educated elite. The vigilantes see people of color, along with those who espouse the liberal social values of the college-educated elites, including gun control, as contaminants to society.

Richard Rorty, in Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth-Century America, fears that a breakdown will be inevitable once workers realize that the government has no genuine interest in raising low and substandard wages, halting the exportation of jobs overseas, or curbing crippling personal debt. White-collar workers, who are also being downsized, will turn to the far right, he writes, and refuse to be taxed to provide social benefits:

At that point, something will crack. The nonsuburban electorate will decide that the system has failed and start looking for a strongman to vote for—someone willing to assure them that, once he is elected, the smug bureaucrats, tricky lawyers, overpaid bond salesmen, and postmodern professors will no longer be calling the shots. A scenario like that of Sinclair Lewis’ novel It Can’t Happen Here may then be played out. For once such a strongman takes office, nobody can predict what will happen. In 1932, most of the predictions made about what would happen if Hindenburg named Hitler chancellor were wildly overoptimistic.

One thing that is very likely to happen is that the gains made in the past forty years by black and brown Americans, and by homosexuals, will be wiped out. Jocular contempt for women will come back into fashion. The words “nigger” and “kike” will once again be heard in the workplace. All the sadism which the academic Left tried to make unacceptable to its students will come flooding back. All the resentment which badly educated Americans feel about having their manners dictated to them by college graduates will find an outlet.

America’s episodic violence, while dwarfed by the campaigns of genocide and mass extermination carried out by totalitarian systems led by the Nazis, Joseph Stalin, and Mao Tse-tung, is nevertheless, as the black activist H. Rap Brown once said, “as American as cherry pie.” We have always mythologized, even idolized, our vigilante killers. The Indian fighters, gunslingers, and outlaws on the frontier, as well as the mobsters and the feuding clans such as the Hatfields and McCoys, color our history.

Vigilantes and lone avengers are the popular heroes in American culture. They are celebrated on television and in Hollywood movies. Audiences, especially as they feel economic and political power slipping from their hands, yearn for the violent authority embodied in rogue cops in films such as Dirty Harry or in unrepentant killers such as Bradley Cooper in American Sniper. D. W. Griffith’s 1915 film The Birth of a Nation, inspired by and adapted, in part, from Thomas Dixon Jr.’s novel The Clansman, was the prototype for the filmic celebrations of American vigilante violence.

President Woodrow Wilson held a screening of The Birth of a Nation. It was the first motion picture shown at the White House. Wilson praised Griffith’s portrayal of savage, animalistic black men—portrayed by white actors in blackface—humiliating noble Southern men and carrying out sexual assaults on white women. “It is like writing history with lightning, and my only regret is that it is all so terribly true,” Wilson reportedly said. The film swept the nation. White audiences, including in the North, cheered the white vigilantes. The ranks of the Ku Klux Klan exploded by a few million following the film’s release.

The really rapid growth of the Klan did not occur in the early years when The Birth of a Nation was at the peak of its influence and availability. By 1919, the Klan had only a few thousand members. Not until the summer of 1920 [five years after the film’s release] . . . did the real expansion of the Klan begin. By the summer of 1921, it had around 100,000 members. . . . By the middle years of the 1920s, the Klan, according to Nancy Maclean, may have reached a peak of 5 million members spread across the nation. . . . It is impossible to say with any certainty what the precise role of The Birth of a Nation was in encouraging this increase; but as African-American scholar Lawrence Reddick noted in 1944, “Its glorification of the Ku Klux Klan was at least one factor which enabled the Klan to enter upon its period of greatest expansion.” James Baldwin called the film “an elaborate justification of mass murder.”

A century later, our culture’s long infatuation with guns and acquiescence to vigilante killings continue to inspire the lone vigilantism of gunmen such as George Zimmerman, who followed an unarmed black teenager, Trayvon Martin, through a gated community in Florida and killed him. That state’s “stand your ground” law that allowed Zimmerman to be acquitted of murder is the judicial sanction of vigilante violence.

In 1984 Bernhard Goetz, in one of the most celebrated cases of vigilante violence, used an unlicensed gun to shoot four black teenagers in a New York subway car. He claimed the black men were trying to mug him. The National Rifle Association (NRA) was linked to Goetz’s legal defense, and one of the NRA’s daughter organizations, the Fire Arms Civil Rights Legal Defense, provided funds. Goetz was acquitted of attempted murder and convicted only of illegal possession of a firearm, for which he spent eight months in jail.14 The case strengthened arguments for less restrictive “concealed carry” laws. It was because of Goetz and the NRA that Zimmerman was legally permitted to carry the concealed Kel-Tec PF-9 pistol he used to murder an unarmed seventeen-year-old boy.

In December 2012, twenty first-graders and six adults were gunned down in an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, yet the Senate will not pass legislation imposing stiffer background checks on gun purchasers, nor a ban on assault weapons. On average, 32 Americans are murdered with guns every day. Another 140 are treated for a gun assault in an emergency room.15 Some 30,000 Americans die each year from gunfire—and about two-thirds of the shootings are suicides.16 But Newtown, like the mass shootings at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado (12 dead), at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Virginia (33 dead), at the immigration center in Binghamton, New York (14 dead), and at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado (15 dead), has had no discernible effect on mitigating our gun culture. There has been a school shooting on average every ten days since the Newtown massacre.

The state has never opposed the widespread public ownership of guns because these weapons have rarely been deployed against the state. In this, the United States is an anomaly. It has a heavily armed population and yet maintains remarkable political stability—because, as Hofstadter writes in American Violence, “our violence lacks both an ideological and geographical center; it lacks cohesion; it has been too various, diffuse, and spontaneous to be forged into a single, sustained, inveterate hatred shared by entire social classes.” He adds that Americans also have “a remarkable lack of memory where violence is concerned and have left most of our excesses a part of our buried history.” Hofstadter notes that “most of our violence has taken the form of action by one group of citizens against another group, rather than by citizens against the state. The sheer size of the country, the mixed ethnic, religious, and racial composition of the people, and the diffuseness of power under our federal system have all tended to blunt or minimize citizen-versus-state conflicts and to throw citizen-versus-citizen conflicts into high relief.”

We are not a people with a revolutionary or an insurrectionary tradition. The War of Independence, while it borrowed the rhetoric of revolution, replaced a foreign oligarchy with a native, slaveholding oligarchy. The founding fathers were conservative. The primacy of private property, especially slaves, was paramount to the nation’s founders.

The framers of the Constitution established a series of mechanisms to thwart the popular will, from the electoral college to the appointment of senators, buttressed by the disenfranchisement of African Americans, women, Native Americans, and the landless. George Washington, probably the wealthiest man in the country when the war was over—much of his money was earned by speculating on seized Indian land—shared exclusive economic and political power with his fellow aristocrats. This distrust of popular rule among the elite runs in a straight line from The Federalist Papers and the Constitutional Convention of 1787 to the 2000 presidential election, where the Democratic candidate, Al Gore, received over half a million more popular votes than the Republican George W. Bush.

The few armed rebellions—such as the 1786 and 1787 Shays’ Rebellion and the 1921 armed uprising at Blair Mountain—were swiftly and brutally put down by a combination of armed vigilante groups and government troops. More importantly, these rebellions were concerned with specific local grievances rather than broad political and ideological disputes. “Since our violence did not typically begin with anyone’s desire to subvert the state, it did not typically end by undermining the legitimacy of authority,” Hofstadter writes. The federal structure, as Hofstadter notes, has effectively diverted violence away from symbols of national power to regional or state authority. The miners at Blair Mountain picked up weapons for the right to organize unions in West Virginia. African Americans, enraged by police violence in Oakland, Chicago, Philadelphia, and other cities in the 1960s, created groups such as the Black Panthers primarily for self-defense, although the party later evolved into a quasi-revolutionary movement. The universal, radical ideologies and utopian visions that sparked revolutions in Russia and Germany after World War I are alien to our intellectual tradition.

“Most American violence,” Hofstadter observes, has been initiated with a “conservative” bias. It has been unleashed against abolitionists, Catholics, radicals, workers and labor organizers, Negroes, Orientals, and other ethnic or racial or ideological minorities, and has been used ostensibly to protect the American, the Southern, the white Protestant, or simply the established middle-class way of life and morals. A high proportion of our violent actions has thus come from the top dogs or the middle dogs. Such has been the character of most mob and vigilante movements. This may help to explain why so little of it has been used against state authority, and why in turn it has been so easily and indulgently forgotten.

Don't let big tech control what news you see. Get more stories like this in your inbox, every day.

Chris Hedges, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter, writes a regular column for Truthdig every Monday. Hedges' most recent book is "Wages of Rebellion: The Moral Imperative of Revolt."