How Democracy Enables Violence

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tags: Civil War, violence, democracy, John Brown, Boston Marathon bombing, Allen C. Guelzo


Allen C. Guelzo is the Henry R. Luce III Professor of the Civil War Era at Gettysburg College, where he serves as Director of the Civil War Era Studies Program. Guelzo was born in Yokohama, Japan, and earned an MA and PhD in history from the University of Pennsylvania. His latest book is "Gettysburg: The Last Invasion."

Credit: Wiki Commons.

In an evil moment, H. Rap Brown defended the use of violence for changing America with the quip: “Violence is an American as cherry pie.” Regrettably, the man had a point, no matter how evil. Acts of terror, from Oklahoma City to more recent attacks like the Boston Marathon bombing, are far from being isolated events in American history. Our past is pockmarked with people and movements who gloried in the charms of pikes and torches, of blasting caps and dynamite. Some of them we try to shove to the side of our memories as cranks or madmen, so that we can discount them as “isolated” and “unrepresentative.” But there are others, like John Brown and William T. Sherman, who have made violence the central idea of their missions -- and have been nearly canonized as American saints. Why should be we be so shocked at the Tsarnaev brothers?

But we are shocked. We believe as truly as we believe anything in America that liberal democracy should be the antidote to violence. Democracy, after all, gives to everyone the right to speak their minds, to let off steam, to listen to others in an open forum where we can learn how others see the issues, and with something less than the almighty urgency we do. Democracy, we like to think, is about peace -- about majorities getting their way but agreeing not to stand minorities up against the barn and shoot them, and about minorities agreeing to let majorities have that way but only until the next election or until the minority can come up with some more persuasive restatement of its ideas. One of the things Albert Einstein, the most famous of all immigrants to America, loved most about America was this open-endedness: “From what I have seen of Americans,” he said, “I think that life would not be worth living to them without this freedom of expression.”

Perhaps if the Tsarnaev brothers had been merely infiltrators like the nineteen terrorists on 9/11, we could ease our discomfort by wishfully thinking that they simply didn’t understand liberal democracy. But they weren’t strangers. Both, yes, were immigrants, but both had lived in the United States for at least five years. One was a boxer who hoped to fight for the U.S. Olympic team; the other was a scholarship graduate of Cambridge Rindge & Latin School. They did not misunderstand democracy; they understood it all too well.

The very thing which liberal democracy does best is also the very thing which leads some people to want to destroy it. Democracy fosters openness; it allows all those competing visions an equal platform on which to make their case, whether it’s traffic lights or foreign policy. But a platform to express grievances does not guarantee that the aggrieved will always be content with non-violent solutions. The openness of the platform also invites it to become crowded, and in a crowd, some voices are simply going to be drowned out, or ignored, or prevented from singing their song as long as they think they deserve to.

People sometimes give vent to this when they exclaim, “You’re not listening to me!” What I have all-too-often found is that what they mean is “You’re not doing what I want, so let me repeat it again, more loudly.” Demands that we listen have almost become a test of our loyalty to democracy itself, and in some cases, a way of browbeating a majority into acquiescence. When this fails to yield the desired results, the take-away is not resignation, that their day will someday come, but frustration that to-day is not that day. And to get the attention they have been denied in the welter of democratic voices, they will reach for violence as a way of making people listen. Sometimes the violence is only a loud mouth or a slammed door. Raise the stakes, and the violence can take the form of a bomb.

Erica Chenoweth of the University of Denver has charted outbreaks of terrorism over the last forty years, and to her surprise, the bulk of terrorist incidents occur inside democratic regimes -- and not from attackers infiltrating from the outside, but from domestic terrorists within. This is not, Chenoweth warns, because democracies are too permissive, morally or politically, but because they can never live up to the expectations of everyone who has a seat at the democratic table. Democracy, so to speak, carries the gene for terror in its own chromosomes.

This is why the United States, despite its determined pursuit of the democratic ideal, has never been without its domestic terrorists. John Brown did not murder Kansas slaveholders or raid the Harpers Ferry arsenal because he misapprehended the meaning of democracy. He understood it all too well -- and understood that he was never going to be given the hearing he thought he deserved. The Civil War as a whole arose from precisely the same cause. Southern secessionists were not anti-democratic. The process of seceding from the Union and carrying on four years of desperate civil war was conducted in a remarkably democratic fashion. What the secessionists found intolerable was that their voice was no longer the prevailing one in the national democracy. The election of Abraham Lincoln as president in 1860, despite failing to garner a single electoral vote in the South, told Southerners that they had now been rendered inconsequential to the national democratic future. That was a future they could not abide. And, as Lincoln said, the war came.

There was, of course, no Internet in 1860. What makes the Boston bombing so much more ominous is that disgruntlement with liberal democracy can find so much easy fellowship. And not only fellowship, but creative and innovative directions for resorting to violence. The Tsarnaev brothers did not need to go around the world to have the embers of their disgruntlement fanned into flame; terror-mongers in Yemen, Pakistan, and another dozen hide-outs need only the Web to get from their lips to our ears. So do their blueprints for underwear bombs, pressure-cookers, and other garage-style explosives. John Brown was only able to recruit twenty fighters and less than two hundred Sharps carbines for his raid on Harpers Ferry. What more he could have done with email? It’s often said that the Internet has been a great engine of democratization; actually, it may instead become a great symbol of how to evade the tough realities of democracy in the pursuit of libertarian anarchy, and the bomb-making directions the Tsarnaevs obtained online are an uneasy reminder of that.

Democracy is not an instant guarantee of peace, a lesson which might have saved us the stupendous failures of Reconstruction after the Civil War and which might have saved us no end of grief in Iraq. I do not, for that reason, have any less confidence in democracy. Nor do I believe that democracy has proven to be insecure, or that we require some new draconian version of law-and-order to save us from more Boston Marathon bombings. But I have more caution about assuming that democracy is a charm which, when dangled, guarantees harmony. Democracy offers us the political order most attuned to human nature – the one, as Thomas Jefferson said, lies closest But the consent of the governed is not only a consent to govern. It is also a consent to be governed. And the latter of those characteristics is much more difficult to ensure than the former. The blood of Boston should remind us of that.

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