The Capitol building.
(Image credit: Illustrated | iStock, REUTERS)

Where do riots come from?

This is not a facile question. But it is one in which we have become curiously uninterested. Not so long ago this was because political violence was accepted by our opinion-making classes and the older of our two major political parties as an unremarkable feature of American civic life: "People will do what they do," as Nancy Pelosi put it last year.

This was always as ludicrous as the opposite reaction, the reactionary fantasies of grapeshot and citizen militias. While I have a certain amount of sympathy with arguments insisting upon a univocal condemnation of rioting, it is only because they are consistent. But consistency is as unhelpful as mindless equivocation if it means being consistently wrong.

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I am insisting upon a different sort of consistency, one that rejects easy explanations and accepts that occurrences like the breaching of the Capitol on January 6 are as complex as any other part of human life. What I refuse to concede is the inhumanity of the costumed hundreds — a fraction of the total number of those who had traveled to Washington to hear President Trump speak. It is absurd, as Dickens once put it, to talk of such an event

as if it were the only harvest ever known under the skies that had not been sown—as if nothing had ever been done, or omitted to be done, that had led to it—as if observers of the wretched millions … and of the misused and perverted resources that should have made them prosperous, had not seen it inevitably coming, years before, and had not in plain words recorded what they saw.

Last year I recognized the unmistakable signs of coming violence, and not only of the sort we are used to regarding as "political," the surge in crime rates, drug addiction, sexual exploitation of children, and so-called deaths of despair. I for one do not understand how it is that people accustomed to talking about the very real consequences of unemployment, who take mental health seriously and understand the relationship between crime, education, poverty, and civil unrest, were able to wave away the cost of our lockdown measures.

We are still living with them. Every bit as much as the violence that began in Minneapolis in response to the death of George Floyd — that sublime moment when a hastily agreed-upon public health consensus about outdoor transmission of a virus exploded — the events of last week cannot be understood outside the context of lockdowns, of an illusory economic recovery whose main beneficiary has been Wall Street, of enforced isolation, and of all the already existing horrors that these things have exacerbated in the last year: social atomization, epistemic disjuncture, addiction, domestic violence, above all, perhaps, an inchoate feeling that something is very wrong and that ordinary means of addressing the crisis are insufficient or simply unavailable.

Which is why it does not seem remotely surprising to me that in the months following perhaps the strangest presidential election in American history, we would see a renewal of violence, albeit on a very small scale, one that is mainly remarkable for its setting and its proximity to the persons of our leaders, who apparently have different views about such things when they are far away. (When, by the way, will we learn the identify of the police officer who shot Ashli Babbitt in the neck?)

This is not a convenient explanation for liberals now intoxicated with what Marxist philosophers call the "technology of punishment." Instead of attempting to make sense of the feelings of hopelessness that give rise to these events, we deal in caricatures: the fantasy that a speech full of lines about the need "to peacefully and patriotically make your voices heard" is an incitement to violence (the weight of hundreds of years of legal thinking on the subject suggests otherwise) and the conflation of two men carrying handcuffs that can be cheaply purchased online with non-existent kidnapping plots. But this was not an insurrection or a revolt or any of the other silly things it has been called by people who know better. Nor was it something that can be superficially explained or dismissed as a matter of convenience — or an instinct that can be suppressed by the sight of guns and uniforms.

As I write this, the party that spent 2019 employing Tea Party rhetoric about Lincoln and the Founding Fathers during the last impeachment craze has now rediscovered the tropes of Bush-era neoconservatism. MSNBC hosts are discussing "de-Baathification" and a new Patriot Act is almost certainly on the horizon. Democrats have once again become the Party of Order. Washington, D.C., is under martial law, which means thousands of National Guardsmen reading Atlas Shrugged or sleeping under the same statues protesters would have been allowed to destroy only a few weary months ago. Joe Biden's inauguration will become what President Trump once fantasized about: a military event, a quasi-fascistic spectacle of raw power, like the proclamation of a new emperor by a detail of leering praetorians.

This is the sort of thing people usually protest.

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