On the afternoon of August 26, Julia Jackson, mother of Jacob Blake, a Black man shot seven times by a police officer in Kenosha, Wis., appealed to our better angels: “Everybody,” she said, “Let’s use our hearts, our love, and our intelligence to work together, to show the rest of the world how humans are supposed to treat each other. America is great when we behave greatly.” Later that night, after an imposed curfew, militia members were out in the streets claiming to be protecting businesses from rioting and looters. One of its members, a 17-year-old, allegedly shot three people with an assault rifle, killing two. Days later, a man affiliated with a right-wing group was shot and killed in Portland, Ore., after a large group of Trump supporters drove into the city in a caravan of pickup trucks.
On their face, these shootings might not all appear to be political. But the sparks that light the fuse of political violence in America need not be kindled purposefully. Lyndon Johnson understood that when faced with political unrest during his presidency. On the night Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968, Johnson told one mayor: “Don’t, please, send your skinny little rookies out with great big guns and all by themselves — if shooting starts, it may never stop.”
Many experts are focused on the possibility of political violence emerging on or around this fall’s election. On August 18, for example, a Department of Homeland Security memo surfaced that warned perpetrators of violence “could quickly mobilize” to undermine the election “in response to perceived partisan and policy-based grievances.” While the upcoming election is important, it is a single event. It reflects the reality that we live in a country that is growing more polarized and violent, thanks, in part, to a president keen on stoking the country’s divisions. To address this increasingly dangerous situation, we should establish a Task Force on Political Violence that is devoted to reducing the likelihood of political violence in the United States and mitigating its impact on communities. Such an effort has to confront two realities: 1) political violence is likely to rise in the United States regardless of who wins in November or their margin of victory, and 2) our laws, institutions, and analysis on these issues are insufficient.
Consider a Biden-Harris victory. Such an election result could animate far-right or white supremacist violence, according to Russ Travers, former acting director of the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC). It may also provoke more loosely affiliated networks, such as accelerationists who promote violence to exploit what they see as the contradictions inherent in our political system in order to catalyze its demise. These networks, and others praised by President Donald Trump, have been assessed by the FBI as having dangerous ideas that are “very likely” to lead to violence.
Now consider a Trump-Pence victory in November and its effect on the propensity for far-left groups to resort to violence. As of Aug 28, FiveThirtyEight gave Trump a 30 percent chance of winning a second term this fall, but a 19 percent chance of winning the popular vote. That means approximately one scenario in three involves Trump winning without a popular mandate. Finally, the FiveThirtyEight models do not account for contested elections – results that are too close to call on Election Night. Many scenarios, especially in the event of a second Trump term that enforces terrorism designations on far-left political movements, could lead to increased political violence.
No matter the outcome this fall, the potential for political violence looms large and, in some places, is already becoming a reality. The main variable that’s dependent on the outcome is who the perpetrators of violence are most likely to be. This point is not an appeal to “both sides-ism” or an argument that far-left groups pose the same threat or are carrying out the same kinds of attacks as those on the far right. But it underscores the ways violence can emerge from different political scenarios. People are animated to commit acts of violence for complex reasons, and decades of psychological research on the subject have yet to develop any generalizable pathway for why they do so. One thing we know is that people use political violence when they do not believe they have a chance to influence the political process through more legal or formal channels.
A Task Force on Political Violence could potentially help the U.S. government be more prepared for the rising possibility of violence and its impact. The task force would not be permanent, but it is necessary for the urgency of the moment. There is no clear prescription to this problem, but we better start thinking about it. I envision such a task force having three responsibilities.
First, it would lead the effort to develop a plan for how to mitigate the possibility of rising political violence and reduce its impact should it occur. It would coordinate and manage research devoted to understanding the dimensions of political violence in America. That includes assessing who might be recruited to perpetrate such acts, what their targets might be, where these recruits come from, when they might carry out an attack, and why they are trying to use violence to shape political outcomes.
Second, it would design policies based on a mission to reduce the likelihood of political violence anywhere, such as through proactive measures with communities and local law enforcement. In particular, because the task force would involve community outreach, it would be uniquely placed to provide feedback to federal agencies that may be deliberately or inadvertently feeding cycles of violence. It would also mitigate the impact of violence should it occur, for example by designing programs to counter recruitment efforts or to develop “off-ramps” that give people a better chance to leave violent groups should they want to do so.
Third, a Task Force on Political Violence would coordinate interagency response in the event of a crisis. By sharing best practices, it would provide critical information and guidance to the agencies involved in the early response as well as outreach to help communities affected by violence in order to ensure State interventions reduce the overall likelihood of additional violence.
In addition to the benefits listed above, one final crucial dimension is that the task force would focus specifically on “political violence” – the use of violence to achieve political objectives. This term has several benefits.
First, the term “political violence” is more objective than alternatives: It avoids the fraught issues of considering domestic terrorism designations or expanding countering violent extremism programs, while still focusing on protecting Americans. We must find a different way to address the domestic threat of political violence besides establishing a system of domestic terrorism designations. Domestic terrorism designations are likely a quagmire: While conceivably a regime could be crafted that would survive legal challenges, it would take time to develop one, with limited benefits, certain litigation, and potential abuse with respect to civil liberties and political activities. Additionally, those who focus on social justice issues point to fears in minority communities that terrorism designations may disproportionately cause them harm.
Political violence is not a perfect term either: It is hard to determine what constitutes violence and whether it is being employed for political reasons. But it is more objective than many other terms and is more flexible to address the ways groups or individuals may use violence to advance their political agendas.
Second, a task force on political violence is designed to react quickly to events. Even if terrorism designations were possible, an effort focused on countering domestic terrorism risks minimizing its value at the moment it must be maximally helpful. For example, when an attack occurs, would this effort need to first determine that it was a “terrorist” attack before being activated to work on it? That would be tricky, since information is most limited at the moment of an attack, yet early action/early response is needed. This is especially problematic in the United States, where many violent actors are organized to deliberately confound labels like “terrorism” to confuse the institutions designed to address the threats they pose.
The greatest challenge to making a task force on political violence work is to find the most appropriate home for it. One possible host for such a task force would be the Department of Homeland Security. But this agency may not be able to restore public confidence in its work unless the next administration conducts thorough reform. Another home for the task force would be as a select congressional committee – giving it a crucial bipartisan dimension that could support efforts around a common purpose. But several potential new Republican members of the House of Representatives publicly support QAnon beliefs, which means the effort may be rendered ineffective by political infighting. Finally, the task force could exist in the National Security Council as a Presidential Task Force on Political Violence. But such an effort would face the challenge of being politicized – a Biden-created task force may not be trusted by the far right, and vice-versa.
Wherever it lands, the task force would ideally be a small team that would produce regular assessments on the likelihood of political violence in the United States and policy recommendations on how to reduce levels of political violence and mitigate against its impact. It would be informed through not just analysis of the current situation, but regular engagement with community- and faith-based organizations at greatest risk, and coordination with tech companies and agencies involved in law enforcement.
A house divided against itself cannot stand. President Abraham Lincoln explained that he delivered those remarks in 1858 to “rouse” people “to the peril of the times.” Julia Jackson, Jacob Blake’s mother, reminded us of that speech when she invoked Lincoln’s words to underscore the peril of our own times, and the urgent need to rise to the challenge of this moment. We must coordinate a response to the rising threat of political violence in the United States. This effort cannot address on its own the deeper challenges of political polarization and the use of disinformation by malign actors to amplify voices seeking to undermine our democracy. But such a task force is necessary to bring Americans together under a unified effort to renounce the use of violence as a tool of political change.
[Editor’s Note: Readers may also be interested in Jeffrey Smith and Richard Ashby’s “Researchers on Atrocity Prevention Warn: US on Path to Widespread Political Violence”]
Image: Demonstrators revisit the site where a protester was killed on August 26, 2020 in Kenosha, Wisconsin. On August 25, 17-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse shot and killed two demonstrators. Photo by Brandon Bell/Getty Images