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Haviland Smith: Will there be political violence in America’s future?

This commentary is by Haviland Smith, a retired CIA operations officer and station chief who now lives in Vermont. He worked primarily against the Soviet Union and East European countries and had a tour as CIA”s first chief of counterterrorism.

The violent events of Jan. 6 of last year at the nation’s capital have persuaded more than a few writers and media outlets that there is a rising chance of further, perhaps more intense political violence on our horizon. 

If you look carefully at the available information, a pretty good case can be made that supports this position. Further, it is clear that the situation began to develop with the 2016 election of Donald Trump to the presidency and his subsequent, constant anger and use of vitriol against the U.S. government, its employees and American civilization in general.

The U.S. Department of Justice reports that so far this year there have been over 1,000 threats made to election workers. In addition to that, in the more sensational, publicized world, we have the attack on the Pelosi home in California, the plot to kidnap Michigan Gov. Whitmer and the incident involving Supreme Court Justice Kavanaugh, as well as an armed attack on an FBI field office. 

The threats have become so bad that several national-level politicians have hired personal protection at their own expense.

Violence is committed by both conservative and liberal Americans. The attack on Rep. Steve Scalise was run by a supporter of liberal Sen. Bernie Sanders. In addition, the conservatives assert that the violence perpetrated by Black Lives Matter after the George Floyd incident was in effect political rather than what clearly was racial violence. 

Nevertheless, the violence we have seen breaks down rather clearly and sharply. The Anti-Defamation League states clearly that 90% of all such violence is perpetrated by the far right, with only the remaining 10% from the far left. Even now, polls indicate that close to one in three Republicans and one in 10 of Democrats endorse the use of violence to reach political goals.

It is useful here to remember that Donald Trump has enjoyed the support of something on the order of 30% of the voting population. If you even partially tie that together with the proclivity of conservatives to support political violence, you will better understand the issue of the likelihood of future political violence in this country.

The Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, despite what the NRA and other fervent gun-owing supporters have to say, is very explicit. It reads that “A well-regulated Militia being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.” 

What that says is that you can keep and bear arms only if in doing so you are in support of the security of the U.S. government. Numerous court proceedings have left us right now with very liberal interpretations of that amendment. This allows Americans to keep and bear virtually any kind of pistol, rifle, shotgun or automatic weapon without establishing either their bona fides or that their motivation is the security of our country. 

That simple fact is almost certainly why so many Americans so vigorously support the Second Amendment as it is now interpreted. It gives them the right to own the weapons that would be required if they decided to try to overturn the existing government.

It would seem that our present situation, as well as the direction in which we are moving as a nation, would support political violence. There certainly seems to be acknowledgement of that premise in the U.S. government, where, for example, the FBI has tripled its domestic counterterrorism budget and where almost half of Americans believe that violence is an acceptable way to gain political advantage.

Our future depends in a large measure, as it has since 2016, on Donald Trump and his own proclivity toward verbal and even physical violence (his behavior around the Jan. 6, 2021 events). In that context, the influence that the 2022 midterm election results will have on the issue of future political violence is unclear. It could go either way, but what Trump has done is establish an environment in which violence of all sorts appears to be increasingly acceptable in the general population. 

Certainly, with Trump as a newly announced candidate for the 2024 presidential primaries, the move toward potential political violence has been ramped up yet another notch.

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