Fri. Jan 21st, 2022


About 50 winters ago, British Home Secretary Reginald Maudling gave up on the direct defeat of Irish Republican terrorism. What could possibly be feasible, he said, was almost the British art of deceiving deterioration, was to keep the bloodshed to “acceptable” levels. Which at the time was quite a sensational blaps remained unnoticed at its half-century festival last month. It was a sheepish acknowledgment that he was not numb or defeatist, but cautious.

A year later from the US Capitol Siege, there is talk, even among uneducated scholars, of a second civil war. It remains an epic piece. Red and Blue America are not mapped to contiguous geographic blocks, as the Confederacy and the Union have done. The central state is unrecognizably stronger than it was in 1861. There is (for the time being) no single issue that is equivalent to South Carolina’s declaration of separation. In today’s medical language, what is more plausible than war is disorder of a chronic and endemic nature. What is plausible is an “acceptable” level of violence.

Find these alarmist or far too optimistic, according to taste. But the first of these objections (that January 6, 2021 was not so bad, and a one-time one anyway) is harder to take seriously. It’s often accompanied by the kind of giggling mockery of liberal hysteria and “Trump Derangement Syndrome”Which ceased to be conscientious when people died on the Capitol grounds.

There are several reasons to worry about the future. One is the past. It will not take an exotic sequence of events to make violence a feature of politics in the coming decades. It will only take a regression to, if not quite the average, then a recurring theme in American history. In the half-century after the election of Abraham Lincoln, there were three presidential assassinations and a civil war that claimed almost as many lives like all other American wars together. Ethnic violence flared up between the world wars. The 1960s brought a new round of assassinations and urban riots so badly that some northern cities only half recovered. If anything was deviant, it was not January 6, then it was the relative calm of recent decades. And even that silence, in Oklahoma, included the country’s worst act of domestic terrorism ever.

It would have been easier to relax over these precedents if the siege had shocked Republicans to better behavior over the past year. Initially, there were provocative signs. Kevin McCarthy, who leads the party in the House of Representatives, was fed up with what he “mob”. He has been traveling ever since. The “majority party”, he said this week of the Democrats, the “central question” of “how the Capitol was left so unprepared” still eludes. I suppose this is one definition of the central question.

As bad as it was, the turmoil of the 1920s or 1960s was not in line with a particular party or candidate. It freed any politician to confront it without being seen betraying their own side. If that has changed, it’s another reason to fear for the sustainability of America’s civil peace.

But still not the main reason. A year later, the most disturbing thing about politics is that even those who acknowledge the threat are lost for an answer. Voice reform, social media regulation and the better teaching of citizenship in schools is still being touted as solutions. Each is worthwhile on its own terms. No one can do more than tamper with the edges of the problem. In her computer-rich new book, How civil wars start, academic Barbara F Walter sees a US ripe for terrible internal violence. But no chapter is scarier than the one trying to hold on to hope. The mismatch between illness and treatment is great, and not by a lack of imagination on her part.

All that is needed for evil to triumph is meant for what Edmund Burke said is that good people do nothing. Even apart from the probably incorrect attribution, the quote is incorrect. This implies that cowardice is the eternal problem. More often it is just a lack of good answers. A large minority of Americans view the opposing political party as more or less illegal. Few are old enough to remember that politics can be so dangerous to start total wars. If none of these issues is unique to the US, it is compounded by one, namely: the state has no formal monopoly on the lawful use of force. What exactly needs to be done about factors that are so big and ingrained? How to start a chronic if not existential level of violence is a dull thesis. It’s also a grim credible one.

janan.ganesh@ft.com



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