The Monopoly of Violence and the Perils of Ceding It
A fundamental tenet of the modern western nation state is the monopoly of violence. This idea is perhaps most famously expressed by Thomas Hobbes in his 1651 work Leviathan, where he described the social compact in which people surrender the use of violence to the state in return for relative peace and security. When the state uses violence in fulfilling its end of the bargain it’s “legitimate” violence. A key characteristic is that the forces meting out the violence are controlled by and answer to the state. Unfortunately, in the U.S. we have allowed this line to be blurred and we are now reaping the consequences.
Militias have a long history in the U.S. and current legal precedents hold that under the constitution and the second amendment, private militias are legal. The modern militia movement began in the early 1980’s, but when Timothy McVeigh, a militia member, blew up 168 people, including 19 children, in Oklahoma City in 1995 two things happened. First, these militia movements retreated to the shadows. Second, many states passed legislation aimed at restricting private militias. Forty-one states have some form of legislation regulating private militias. These restrictions generally make it illegal to foment civil unrest or train people to do the same. The problem is it’s a very difficult standard to establish or successfully prosecute. And these people are violent. The few times federal or state authorities have attempted to rein them in, it has not gone well. I give you Waco and Ruby Ridge as two prominent examples. The result has been a flourishing of private militias who very much believe they have a moral and legal right to use violence against their fellow citizens.
While we have been distracted with Islamic extremism, we have been blind to the domestic kind. You have to think, in their wildest dreams these militia groups never imagined the call would come from the highest office in the land. Trump has given them permission — from “good people on both sides” to “stand back and stand by” to “stop the steal.” Signal sent; signal received. Animated by various conspiracy theories these groups are nevertheless united by some common themes: white nationalism, a distrust of government and fetishization of the military. It’s no accident that these cosplay warriors are kitted-out like they are about to storm Fallujah. Now social media (nascent in the early 1990s) is an accelerant — particularly Facebook, which launched to the general public in 2006. As tech journalist Kara Swisher put it, Facebook is designed to turn “engagement into enragement”, it’s a feature not a bug. Platforms like Facebook allowed these groups to spread faster and more broadly than before.
These groups have made inroads into our law enforcement and military. A recent Atlantic article noted of the Oath Keepers, a right-wing group about 25,000 strong, “About two-thirds had a background in the military or law enforcement. About 10 percent of these members were active duty”. FBI internal policy documents warn agents the white supremacy militias have “active ties” to law enforcement. Similarly, a February 2020 poll of military members conducted by the Military Times found 36% of respondents had witnessed white supremacist or racist activity in the ranks. During the recent insurrection at the U.S. Capitol a disturbing number of capitol police seemed to cooperate with the mob — abandoning barriers and taking selfies with them. The melee also included several former and current members of law enforcement and the military who self-identified as such. The problem is significant enough that, in an unprecedented step, the Joint Chiefs of Staff issued a statement to the total force on January 12th, 2021 condemning the attacks in DC and reminding the force of their allegiance to the ideals of the nation as outlined in the constitution. What a time to be alive.
In the near-term we need to focus on identifying and disrupting those groups planning eminent violence. With threats in all 50 states this will be a challenge for law enforcement — but we are lying in the bed we made. In the longer-term we must dismantle most of these groups and re-establish the bright line between the people and the state’s legitimate use of violence. It must be noted that this is made harder when the state abuses its legal use of violence. One can’t help but think of our current national debate about the misapplication of violence by police toward people of color in our society and how this undermines the state’s argument for a monopoly of violence. Any effort must include both reforms by the state side and more clear and enforceable restrictions on civilians. And yes, that must include restrictions on certain types of weapons.