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Thursday, August 17, 2017

Feeling scared when a despicable person is attacked

I have many intense reactions to the events of the last week. One of them, not very high on the list but something I don't feel like I can let pass without comment, is the fear I felt watching that racist "Unite the Right" leader being chased, punched and knocked over and requiring police help to get away.

I feel scared, for myself and others, seeing this--not because I identify with this white supremacist or his cause, but because sudden and unpredictable violence, made possible by the overwhelming and anonymizing crowd, is frightening.

I know this guy is empowered, protected, privileged and emboldened by white supremacy, and is working to expand that power. There are perhaps no people in American politics more utterly despicable and hateful than this guy, who recently deleted his account after posting first that the murder of Heather Heyer was justified, then claiming that that tweet had been posted by a hacker and not him, and then implying that he did post it, but wasn't responsible for it because he's been under duress from stress and pills.

And, I think it's still wrong to physically attack him the way he was attacked. I also know that the protest he led was violent in multiple ways: with the murderous driver, with the parading of guns, and with the beating of protesters with sticks. When the people you claim to be a leader of are not just vocally threatening but actively and immediately violent, and are continuing to be, you are complicit in that violence and your actions are not nonviolent.

I don't know who the people among the left protesters were who were physically attacking others, or what their motivations were. In past protests in this country, undercover cops and FBI agents have sometimes initiated violence in order to discredit and deflate the left. Angry crowds misidentify people, take an attack itself as a sign to attack further, and add an uncertainty about everyone's safety that is itself a form of attack and punishment, one that has long-term effects.

There may be an element of Jewish history and identity that goes into this for me. Dehumanizing punishment by the crowd feels terrifying to me for its historical echoes. And the defense that the attacked has dehumanized us, and therefore brought the attack on himself, rings in my ears in the voice of someone who wants wants to harm me and those I love.

But even without these considerations of how this attack feels like it indirectly harms me and those I love, I think it's wrong. Not as wrong and as what he does every day, but still wrong. Does he bear responsibility for creating creating the conditions that made others attack him? Yes, and not just some responsibility, but nearly all of it. Still, the crowd attacking him is wrong.

Do I think fascists should be scared of a violent response if they go out and threaten Jews and black people, in general? That's certainly a tough question. I do, and I don't.

I do think the threat, and reality, of violence is an unpredictable force that doesn't stick to the contours of righteous justice in the way those who wield it intend.

I also think if you are threatening people, and trying to terrify them, you are forfeiting a lot of the default civility others normally give you. And I agree that gleefully promising more deaths is the sort of thing that makes violence against those who make these threats more just.

I also think that the manner and form of the violence matters; pushing someone offstage, say, vs. punching and knocking down someone while they are walking away. There are many ripples from our actions, and it's not just pie in the sky hyperbole to think that political violence against this sort of scum puts many more of us in more danger.

Friends are asking me, but should this hateful person expect in response to his hate--and not just to his feelings, but to his outspoken organizing of white supremacy? Doesn't white supremacy have an ongoing body count?

These are good points. I can't help, however, remembering the other contexts in which I've heard the same arguments. Would I stand idly by as an anti-gay Islamist cleric is chased and hit by a crowd? Should I join in? My answers are no, and no.

It's important to note that he his official-seeming dress and demeanor to do not excuse him from from his complicity with violence. But being a part of a system that enables violence is not the same as doing violence. Violence against the publisher of a hateful book, or against the author of a hateful book, is wrong.

It's also important to distinguish the question of right and wrong wrong question of legal and illegal. Our laws make compromises that recognize the difficulty of mapping rules onto right and wrong; for instance, it is illegal to attack someone, who has credibly announced that they are going to cause violence later, in order to stop their violence. That's because there would be so many difficult to parse claims that someone's actions and words made later violence certain. But that doesn't mean that attacking them to stop their likely violence is wrong.

Some friends of mine have felt that on this issue and others, I am offensively evenhanded and intellectually aloof. Maybe I am! I certainly feel my blood boil when I watch footage of these evil people marching, waving their clubs, shields and flags, and celebrating past and future killing and destruction. Violence against them is certainly natural, and on that level understandable. It's even partially right.

But it's also partially wrong, and I think the assumption that that violence is valid for its naturalness, or precise in its effect, are dangerous allusions.

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