Welcome To Sectarian America: A People, Divided And Armed

Above photo: People, including those with the boogaloo movement, demonstrate against business closures due to concern about COVID-19, at the State House in Concord, N.H. Michael Dwyer/AP Photo.

Our nation faces a perfect storm of crises and may be teetering on the brink of widespread communal violence.

Feeling more than a little exhausted from a late night spent tracking yet another polarizing fatal shooting at a protest, this time in Austin, I am reminded of what has become a tired —  but no less accurate —  cliché, to speak of “Two Americas.” I’d add that the citizens of each rump republic increasingly see two different scenes —  and certainly draw divergent conclusions —  from the same video footage.

Details of thiss particular incident were initially sketchy and contested. However, most reports agree that libertarian activist Garrett Foster, who was himself armed with a rifle which he was in the habit of carrying when participating in Black Lives Matter protests, was shot and killed after he approached a car that drove into the crowd. The driver, who fled the scene, later called 911 and admitted he shot a protester who he said had pointed a rifle at him (which witnesses dispute); he was questioned but not arrested, as was a third man who allegedly fired at the car.

Is there anything more inherently American than three (reportedly) legally-armed citizens of (probably) opposing politics engaged in a fatal standoff beside an automobile? While not exactly mirroring a cinematic High Noon” Western showdown on Main Street, the shootout certainly reflected some of the cultural ubiquity of what the historian Richard Slotkin has dubbed our “Gunfighter Nation.”

Within a few hours of the confusing gunplay, and before the first official press conference or detailed reports, two distinct narratives developed across the social mediasphere. Take, for example, some initial responses on the Austin Police Department’s Twitter feed:

  • “Universal Background checks NOW!” Reply: “Abolish *all* firearm regulations now!”
  • “Consequences. Don’t get to point guns at people without consequences.” [Posted above an image of the alleged victim carrying rifle earlier in day beside his quadruple-amputee fiancé.] Reply: “mkay, kiddo.” [Posted above an image of many armed men protesting against COVID-lockdowns on the steps of a government building.]
  • “The man shooting the little BLM terrorist has the right to defend himself. This is what happens when Leftists run your city.” Reply: “Defending himself from what exactly? The suspect got out of his car at an intersection and fired into a group of peaceful protestors.”

While gambling is one vice I’ve not dabbled in, my sense is it’s a safe bet that neither binary narrative will end up cohering with the actual details. Yet so reflexive are reactions to such tragic encounters, that one wonders if the collective American amygdala has developed a sort of political-consciousness switch. If so, no doubt one side would attribute it to an accelerated-brand of Darwinian evolution; the other to the [Christian, of course] supreme deity’s divine design. What if both instincts are absurd?

Worse still, this all unfolds in a nation that —  absent hyperbole or partisan projection —  faces a perfect storm of crises (pandemic, economic, racial, environmental, imperial, et al.) and may be teetering on the brink of widespread communal violence, if not outright civil war. It’s all too familiar through these jaded and analogy-inclined eyes: reminding me of Baghdad in late 2006. Welcome to Sectarian America, 2020 —  the land where not just “chickens,” but apparently empires, come home to roost. After all, what’s a 14-year boomerang cycle in the grand arc of history?

What’s in a Word?

Some readers may be thinking, come on —  “Baghdad,” “communal war,” “sectarian,” really? Well, yes; enough to warrant comparison, anyway. Besides, while the term “sectarian” has – especially in a world chockfull of Washington-induced civil wars —  taken on ethno-religious overtones, Merriam-Webster still simply defines it as “an adherent of a sect,” or “a narrow or bigoted person.” Synonyms include “bigoted,” “parochial,” illiberal,” “partisan,” and “provincial.”

Even Merriam’s English Language Learner’s updated definition states: “relating to religious or political sects and the differences between them.” In other words, the divisive sect in question need not be religious, and could just as easily be political, cultural, or vaguely tribal. Still, it is more than mildly interesting and instructive that Merriam dates the first known use of “sectarian” as an adjective to 1649 (just a year after Europe’s own schismatic intra-Christian “Thirty Years’ War” bloodletting); and as a noun to 1819 (only four years past Europe’s 23-year orgy of political violence following the French Revolution and rise of Napoleon). While estimates vary, certainly millions died in each of these European cataclysms, and range from 500,000 to 2.4 million deceased in the more modern, ongoing, Iraq conflagration.

I’m hardly implying that the United States is now necessarily on the cusp of massacres involving civilians the likes of these past volumes, but if we take the conflict I know (or at least experienced) best —  Iraq, 2006-07 —  and a few other historical examples, disturbing analogues do leap forth. Here are half-a-dozen:

It Can’t Happen Here?

With undeniable differences in scale, America’s post-2008 financial crash and post-COVID economic, public health and infrastructure deterioration track similar civil-society crumbling in postwar(s) (Iran-Iraq, Persian Gulf, and 2003 invasion) Iraq, and especially after a decade under the child-killing U.S.-sanctions regime. Even a cursory historical survey demonstrates that revolutions and civil wars —  and in Baghdad, even that “looting” now worrying so many Americans —  thrive in the turbulence-petri-dish induced once existing institutions collapse.

Now, some will dismiss Iraq’s —  or Syria’s, or Libya’s, or Afghanistan’s —  collapse as a function of its developing-nation status, or an allegedly inherent Arab and/or Muslim proclivity for violence. Surely, an “advanced” and prosperous Western democracy such as these United States can weather any storm and avoid both communal violence and the resultant rise of extremist strongmen. To which, swapping out my imperial voyeur cap for an historian’s hat, I offer one rejoinder: Germany.

Sure, Nazi, Hitler and especially Munich analogies are tired, stretched, and typically trotted out by policymakers to gin-up more imperial war. Still, I’m increasingly persuaded that our species’ most profound and instructive fact of the last millennium is this: Nazism, and mankind’s most mechanistic murder-machine, arose not in the African “Dark Continent” of the West’s imagination, but in the heart of Europe itself. In fact, the most fanatical fascism took root in arguably the most technologically, philosophically, and artistically advanced nation on the planet.

Furthermore, the Nazis deftly waged twin electoral and extortion campaigns to seize power amidst the social and economic collapse of Germany’s democratic Weimar Republic. Thus, to Hannah Arendt’s crucial post-Holocaust diagnosis of “the banality of evil,” perhaps we should add something about democracies’ susceptibility to barbarism. All of which lends prescience to the Hitler-contemporary, American novelist Sinclair Lewis. He published his fictional depiction of fascism’s rise in the U.S., 1935’s “It Can’t Happen Here,” during the Great Depression and just 15 years after the last worst global pandemic. Given the context and current parallels, Lewis’s famed work should read as an alarm bell in the night.

The Kindling for a Blaze Has Always Been Here

The United States has, throughout its history, possessed more than the necessary national store of racial and ethnic division kindling. Indeed, when self-styled sophisticate military and civilian policy “experts” decry the difficulty of invading and pacifying foreign states like Iraq —  due to the seemingly intractable trifecta of Kurdish-Sunni-Shia divisions —  one marvels at their obtuseness. For while skepticism of bayonet-point nation-building is sensible —  though hardly consistent in actual application —  they implicitly project a racial and ethnic homogeneity unto the U.S. that’s belied by reality. Indeed, with some relevance for the present moment, remember that settler-colonial America bore a racialized original sin from the first.

Should today’s stark racial divide over policing, criminal justice, and essentially every political flashpoint be so surprising in a diverse immigrant nation established and evolved amidst native genocide, chattel and de facto black slavery, and cycles of ethnic xenophobia? Pseudo-intellectuals have been apt —  and not exactly incorrect —  to point out the hopeless intransigence of societies still cleaved by conflicting memories of long past historical events like the 1448 Battle of Kosovo (Serbs vs. Albanians) or the 680 Battle of Karbala (Sunni vs. Shia Arabs).

Nonetheless, as the current “Battle of the Statues” and heated debates over military base-naming starkly illustrate, Americans have hardly approached consensus on the meaning or legacy of General Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox in 1865, or, for that matter, the establishment of the first permanent English settlement at Jamestown in 1607. In other words, though certainly older than an imperial-synthetic modern Iraqi state that recently celebrated its centennial, the U.S. remains a relatively young country itself plagued with ethno-racial divisions.

We Are a Quasi-Fundamentalist Country

Despite a national —  and evidently anxiety-ridden —  founding mythology of ecclesiastical toleration and harmony, there has always been an American religious divide. Largely established by Protestant dissenters, the nascent colonies and eventual republic was a mirror-inversion of the old country. Whereas most Englishmen belonged to the statist Anglican Church, the majority of Americans always hailed from dissenting Protestant sects.

Furthermore, for all the concern about resurgent worldwide Islamic fundamentalism —  some valid —  it bears mention that the United States remains the developed world’s most pious Christian nation and a reliable fount of evangelical fundamentalism. This inconvenient truth only increases present instability, given the stark general religiosity-disparity between most Americans on either side of any contemporary political conflict. Surely, if one omitted the title “United States,” predictions of imminent instability would stick to a country where abortion doctors have been murdered, just a single openly atheist congressman has been elected in the republic’s 250-year history, and 40 percent of the citizenry believe the Rapture imminent.

Chaos Empowers Demagogues and Sociopaths

As I saw three years after America’s invasion in the name of “Iraqi Freedom,” once civil society crumbles, opportunistic and self-interested civil war seekers can deftly capitalize on existing racial, ethnic, tribal, religious, and/or ideological divides. At the top, demagogues —  defined more by zeal than competence —  rise to the fore. These charismatically cruel and divisive sorts, offer the instinctive comfort of clan loyalty and belonging to desperate people. In a certain sense, my old day-to-day nemesis Moqtada al-Sadr, the post-invasion self-appointed skipper of dispossessed urban Shia —  once maligned as “Mullah-Atari” for his privileged childhood video games penchant —  isn’t so different from the also long-dismissed reality-TV-star Donald Trump.

Meanwhile, in “the streets,” crumbling or broken societies tend to propel the most wretched and sociopathic of citizens to leadership roles as born-again warlords. Let’s say I’ve responded to on enough marketplace suicide-bombings and bound-and-murdered bodies dumped on soccer fields, to personally attest. These empowered-killers, whether motivated by genuine ideological zeal or simple power, garner legitimacy as community protectors —  which never ends well. Again, lest we attribute sociopathic chaos and the rise of fascistic demagogues to the browner and less Christian corners of the globe, keep a retrospective eye on Germany. Remember that the (“father-”) land that birthed Beethoven and Gutenberg also sired the Brown Shirts and Goebbels.

In this American moment, there are also discomfiting early parallels. Small, but significant and growing groups like the Boogaloo Boys —  for whom sparking civil war is raison d’etre —  may find more success exploiting anxious unaffiliated whites than it’s polite to admit. Staggering segments of white Americans view the BLM protests, according to one analysis, “much more darkly: as a sign that [whites] are on the verge of being displaced from their privileged historical role in American society, or, even worse, reduced to a marginalized minority.” Fear may be the basest, but is undoubtedly also the strongest motivator for extreme human behavior. So, while few whites are apt to grip tiki torches and chant, “Jews will not replace us,” many of the otherwise friendly shoppers in your local Walmart —  and my own family —  subscribe, on some level, to the general sentiment. None of which bodes well.

Millions of Us Are Trained Warriors…

Then there’s the demobilized military wildcard. Here too, the incident oozes with hard-to-categorize complexity, since the Austin shooting victim was himself a veteran. Where will the millions of mustered-out alumni of America’s late-stage imperial “dirty wars” come down on today’s potentially violent conflicts? While military and veteran dissent is seemingly on the rise, this open question may still have disturbing answers. Donald Trump remains quite popular with many military and law enforcement types, both institutions have been infiltrated by “far-right extremists,” and servicemembers have long been primarily sourced from disproportionately rural and militia-friendly regions.

It would be a cruel irony, indeed, if America’s highly-touted “All-Volunteer Force” came back to haunt the hollowed-out republic it ostensibly serves. Should veterans take violent —  especially right-wing —  sides in civil conflicts, establishment elites may come to regret a half-century of opportunistic and obligatory military recruiting in the Deep South and (militia-mecca) Mountain West. Consider it a sort of savage revenge of Waco and Ruby Ridge, harkening back to those seemingly tranquil 1990s, which might just trigger a dark historical reframing of the significance of Persian Gulf War veteran Timothy McVeigh’s resultant 1995 Oklahoma City bombing.

…And We Are Armed to the Teeth

Finally, there’s America’s other exceptionalist variable: guns. Whether one views this country’s world record level of gun ownership (a distant second is that real-world Wild West of Yemen) as a threat to, or handmaiden of, liberty —  surely (gulp!) most can agree that civil-firepower proliferation can quickly catalyze and escalate civil-conflict. This reminds me of the title —  and thesis —  of the historian John Shy’s classic essay collection on the social, political, and intellectual context of the Revolutionary War: “A People Numerous and Armed.” Consider the prescient relevance of just one argument synopsis: “Shy argues that one of the major obstructions to [British pacification] strategy were colonial militias. Although they were tangential in terms of actual fighting (poorly organized and small in number) they served as important catalysts on the home front. Militias would politicize communities, forcing otherwise apathetic people to take sides.”

In the violent Austin incident, multiple parties were packing heat. According to the New York Times’ analysis, “In Texas, it is lawful to carry rifles, shotguns, and other so-called long guns on the street without a permit, as long as the weapons are not brandished in a threatening manner.” Public debate and the police investigation partly pivot on perceptions of the vague and inherently subjective terms, “brandish” and “threatening.” Please don’t misunderstand: I dare not weigh in here on gun control or the 2nd Amendment’s appropriate scope. Rather, I analyze our tenuous moment via the American world as it is: that is, heavily —  but unevenly —  armed. The statistics aren’t neat, but make no mistake: the right-wing possesses a far more impressive arsenal. ‘

In my dreamier moments, I’ve even considered writing an absurdist dystopian first novel about some implications of this teensy fact. In my supercilious imagination, the protagonist —  just about the only lefty combat vet in a crunchy college town (not unlike, say, Lawrence, Kansas) —  is drafted as a rebel warlord, then comically labors to train and lead a motley force of millennial militiamen. Frustrated by their farcical unfamiliarity with where to point the business end of a rifle, and exasperated by his nascent rebels’ battle-attire, my hero repeatedly roars, “You can’t charge a hill in skinny jeans!” Just as there’s truth in every good joke, it’s worth mulling the troubling realities in even the most certain-to-be-abortive novel.

Anyway, call me crazy, but it seems that when it comes to today’s potential civil conflicts, calamitous connections are everywhere and reflect persistent contexts previously too troubling to see. Nevertheless, donning blindfolds to these inconvenient linkages has lost any lingering expediency. It could, in fact, amount to a collective suicide pact for polite liberals everywhere.

Exceptionalism’s Endgame

America is nothing if not a peculiar nation; one befitting its original sin of racialized chattel slavery —  a practice historians have long dubbed the “peculiar institution.” Should one accept that the U.S. is indeed exceptional, it’s seemingly so in all the wrong ways. Surely, it’s no accident that scholars now label another of America’s aberrant behaviors —  the death penalty,  abolished by 70 percent of the world’s nations, and every European Union member —  as a “peculiar institution.” Back when I shepherded select students from my civil rights class to Louisiana’s infamous Angola State Penitentiary, they were shocked to learn that an executed prisoner’s cause of death is listed as “homicide” on the official certificate. Is a country capable of such state barbarism —  joining Syria, Libya, Afghanistan, and Iraq on that score —  really above spiraling sectarian violence?

Perhaps a bit of utterly un-American humility is in order. After all, contrary to its self-styled role as the “last best hope of earth,” the U.S. has become —  to channel Martin Luther King’s 1967 “Three Evils” speech —  the greatest purveyor of pollution and pandemic in the world today. And, in the parlance of our times, nothing so smacks of the “privilege” of disproportionality. To wit, with just 4 percent of the global population America accounts for nearly one-third of excess carbon dioxide emissions and fully one-fourth of coronavirus cases. A nation so sick with the cultish disease of exceptionalism might, in fact, be ripe for a communal conflagration, especially in an age of rising racial, environmental, and economic anxiety and insecurity. Perhaps victims of climate catastrophe and COVID should have “homicide” listed on their death certificates, and “American exceptionalism” registered as the culprit on the global criminal complaint.

What’s more, if the Boogaloo brand finally faces off against the more radically-disenfranchised of Black Lives Matters —  a broad movement, it should be said, which I’ve marched, stood, and been gassed with —  the vast unaffiliated mass will likely take sides. Not even that onetime swami of counterinsurgency, David Petraeus, can tell us “how this ends,” if these American antagonists are then drawn into “culture wars” fought with physical weapons.

Forgive a touch of the curmudgeonly from this exasperated —  if still hopelessly idealistic —  contestant in the current civil conflicts, but some of this division may reflect the dark underbelly of a more extreme identity politics marred by apparent disinterest in class or coalition-building. I don’t pretend special knowledge of practical solutions, but unless today’s muddled (even if moral) movement can reach the presumably unreachable —  which this professional-persuader hasn’t managed with his own family —  the outcomes may be disastrous.

At least in the crucial near-term, misplaced faith in the deduced demographic determinism of youth and a minority-majority won’t alter a salient certitude. That is, unless BLM, antiwar, and social justice reformers can convince more job-insecure, rural and Rust Belt whites of their place in “the movement,” far too many anxiously “red-blooded Americans” will gravitate to the jumbled neo-fascist whiteness ideologies of Richard Spencer, or, worse still, to the action-oriented Proud Boys. The latter’s twisted takes on the more left-leaning turn-of-the-20th-century anarchists’ “propaganda of the deed” could lead to a very real civil war along very American sectarian lines.

Talk about the regrettably real confirmation of my common ripostes that for our declining empire: Kansas City becomes Kandahar, and Baltimore is Baghdad…

Danny Sjursen is a retired U.S. Army officer and contributing editor at Antiwar.com. His work has appeared in the NY Times, LA Times, The Nation, Huff Post, The Hill, Salon, Popular Resistance, and Tom Dispatch, among other publications. He served combat tours with reconnaissance units in Iraq and Afghanistan and later taught history at his alma mater, West Point. He is the author of a memoir and critical analysis of the Iraq War, Ghostriders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge. His forthcoming book, Patriotic Dissent: America in the Age of Endless War is now available for pre-order. Sjursen was recently selected as a 2019-20 Lannan Foundation Cultural Freedom Fellow. Follow him on Twitter @SkepticalVet. Visit his professional website for contact info, to schedule speeches or media appearances, and access to his past work.

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