Dangerous Speech & a 2nd U.S. Civil War

“But there’s no place in politics for violence — to threaten or carry out violence — and that’s where everybody has to take a stand. Whether it’s your supporters or somebody else’s…Sometimes it’s easy to call out the other side, but you’ve got to call out your own side, too, and I think that’s something where they could definitely pick up the pace.” Steve Scalise, Republican (Louisiana) and a recovered victim of a politically motivated shooting

Albuquerque police detain members of the New Mexico Civil Guard, an armed civilian group, following the shooting of a man during a protest over a statue of Spanish conqueror Juan de Oñate on June 15, 2020 (photo by Adolphe Pierre-Louis)

 

Let’s start with the good news. We are not currently in a civil war in the United States.

Over the past few years, pundits and editorialists have wondered whether this country might be heading toward a civil war, on the verge of one, or even already in one. Others have written that, yes, we’re currently in a civil war, but only in a non-violent, metaphorical sense (in other words, not a war at all).

In 2017, the Los Angeles Times referred to such stories as “bait-and-switch” because they compare political polarization to war and because they juxtapose clashes between white supremacists and left-wing demonstrators as indicative of where the country is overall. Two years ago, Vox referred to this genre as “clickbait” and “apocalypse punditry.” Steven Greenhut recently wrote that such talk of civil war is too blithe and over-the-top, and people aren’t giving the topic the seriousness it deserves.

It is true that talk of civil war is often overdone. According to the Uppsala University Department of Peace and Conflict Research (UUDPCR), a war is defined as having “at least 1,000 battle-related deaths in one calendar year.” By that definition, the U.S. is clearly not in a war. However, we may be in a situation akin to a low-intensity conflict. The UUDPCR defines conflict as “at least 25 but less than 1000 battle-related deaths in one calendar year in one of the conflict’s dyads.” Last year, according to the Anti-Defamation League’s (ADL) “Heat Map” of political violence, there were 46 incidents involving extremist murders, terrorist plots or attacks, or extremist shootouts with police. Altogether 54 people were killed in these incidents, which crosses the 25-death threshold. Tragically, 23 of these victims were killed in one horrific incident, the shooting at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas by a white supremacist who was intent on killing Hispanic people.

There are usually limits to using rigid definitions for something as complex as conflict and war. First, the cutoffs of 25 deaths and 1,000 deaths are arbitrary. The same number of deaths would be more impactful in a smaller country than in a larger one, so perhaps a rate of death might be more appropriate than a simple tally. Also, according to UUDPCR standards, such attacks in the US may not apply toward “conflict” because most were carried out by lone actors, not by formally or even informally organized groups. In addition, several U.S. incidents in the ADL Heat Map involved individual extremists who were involved in domestic incidents or robberies which may not have been politically motivated. Taking these caveats into account, the U.S. may not meet the criteria for being in a “conflict” either.

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Desperate Central Americans Are Fleeing to Other Countries Besides the US: Forced Displacement Statistics

One of the recurrent arguments I’ve seen in the debate over the Trump administration’s inhumane child separation policy is that Central Americans are primarily motivated by economic opportunism. The argument goes that people are trying to take advantage of a “loophole” and that U.S. Customs and Border Protection would be more lenient if adults arrived at the border with children in tow. Attorney General Jeff Sessions even claimed that the influx of asylum seekers was due to the previous administration giving people immunity from prosecution if they were accompanied by a minor:

“Word got out about this loophole, with predictable results. The number of aliens (edit: ‘people’) illegally crossing with children between our ports of entry went from 14,000 to 75,000 — that’s a five-fold increase — in just the last four years.” 

A gaping hole with this analysis is that it ignores the fact that the United States is not the only country that has seen an increase in asylum seekers from Central America. Instead, the pattern seems to be motivated primarily from “push” factors such as rising levels of violence in Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras than by “pull” factors in the United States such as easier border crossings.

If Sessions’ claim were true, then we would expect that the increase in refugees and asylum seekers would only be seen in the U.S. But that is not what we’re seeing. For example, the number of asylum applications in Mexico increased dramatically from 2,000 in 2014 to more than 14,000 last year, primarily from Honduras. In the case of Honduras, homicide rates nearly doubled a few years after the President was removed in a coup in 2009. That led to a series of counter-protests, followed by “a wave of political violence that targeted a range of activists, including journalists and human rights defenders.” On top of that, instability allowed gangs and drug cartels to flourish, and a broken legal system has allowed men to kill women at some of the highest rates of femicide in the world, without fear of incarceration.   

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