Last summer we asked our readers to submit their questions about political violence for our contributors to take a crack at. We’d now like to do the same, again. Got a question about political violence and conflict? Submit your questions in the comments, and our team of contributors will try and answer. We will post the answer to the first question we’ve chosen next week.
Posts from the ‘Would Someone Explain This?’ Category
This post is part of the “Would Someone Please Explain This to Me?” series.
Reader JCB asks: “How did what was original an ethnic Toureg uprising taking advantage of a Malian coup and Libyan weapons end up as al-Qaeda sympathizing Salafists controlling Timbuktu? Does anyone know who’s in control of northern Mali outside of Timbuktu? Could this be a new (Islamist? Toureg?) state in the making? Would that state be viable?”
- Al Qaeda-affiliated groups have a long-established presence throughout the Sahel, stretching across western Libya, western Niger, southern Algeria, and northeastern Mali. The Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, initially formed in Algeria, has since developed into the pan-Maghreb group Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). After their unsuccessful fight to defend Qaddafi against Libyan rebels, the Tuareg rebels returned to Mali to re-ignite their own war of independence for a distinct Tuareg territory. To do so, they appear to have enlisted the help Ansar Dine, a Tuareg group with Salafist persuasions and ties to AQIM. That temporary alliance was probably one of convenience rather than one of converging ideologies. The secular Turaegs appear to have miscalculated the intentions of these Islamist groups, however, realizing after the fact that these groups were uninterested in independence and more interested in establishing Salafist rule. Hindsight is 20-20.
- I don’t see Mali’s army re-establishing control over northern Mali, owing to an overall lack of capacity. (This lack of capacity, by the way, pre-dates the coup). The military appears hopelessly underequipped to re-establish sovereignty without help from neighbors and allies; the interim government formally requested such help via foreign military intervention last week.
- On the other hand, I also do not see a new Islamist state emerging, much less becoming viable. At most, we might see continued Salafist and Taureg efforts to establish local authority, increase regional support for Salafist beliefs, and maintain smuggling routes. This would be like the Taliban of the Sahara — brutal but wildly unpopular. So although I don’t anticipate seeing any state or even quasi-state structures emerging in Timbuktu, I do expect an amassing of weapons and cash — and continued abuses of civilians – if the situation goes on unabated.
Note: The Guardian has a valuable interactive map of separatist movements in Africa.
This post is part of the “Would Someone Please Explain This to Me?” series.
Reader Luis asks: “How did the military reached a credible commitment with the rest of the society not to overturn nonmilitary regimes? Aren’t there enough economic incentives, given that in developed societies soldiers and the military hierarchy is far from being on the top of the income distribution, for those who own the arms expropriate the rest of society? Does the answer rely on noneconomic incentives, then?
Check that my question is not about ‘why democracies survive’ but more general: why isn’t any society a military dictatorship? And my focus is on the mechanism of commitment that makes it possible to solve the problem.”
This is an excellent question, as civil-military relations can mean many things. The classic discussion going back to Huntington, Janowitz, Finer and others focused on the possibility of coups and the challenges of keeping the military in the barracks. Over the course of time, scholars have increasingly focused not on coups and their prevention but how to finesse the tradeoffs between control and effectiveness. Why? In part because we take for granted that militaries in advanced democracies will always stay in the barracks. I always use the same example: when Bush and Gore contested the 2000 Presidential election, did anyone ask what the military thought? Not as far as I can tell. The military was never considered to be relevant in this crisis. This is quite distinct from contested elections in less established democracies, where contested elections and coups go together like peanut butter and jelly.
So the puzzle Luis raises is a good one, but let me address the motivations he suggests before considering the bigger one. No, the economic incentives are not so apparent for American, Canadian, British, French, German, and other officers and enlisted personnel. Just to focus on the American case, while officers start out underpaid as their careers advance, their pay not only competes well with the civilian sector (especially once you factor in healthcare and other benefits) but eventually exceeds what average civilians make. The same is largely true for enlisted personnel — the pay is lousy to start but catches up quickly. Plus advanced democracies do not generally have the same kinds of spoils that more fragile countries have. The post-industrial economy is hard to loot, at least it is hard for soldiers to do so.
Coup-proofing is a deliberate effort in authoritarian countries and in new democracies. In advanced democracies, it is not a focus of politicians. Why? Perhaps much of the coup-proofing has already been done. To launch a coup, you have to gamble that you will have enough support from key parts of the military and enough tolerance from the rest. The history of coups shows that this is a coin-flip at best. In autocracies, recruitment is a key issue — does the military over or under-represent ethnic groups, which might provide motivation for some to take power when their privileged situation is threatened?
In the US, Canada, and other multi-ethnic democracies, the military does not replicate the ethnic composition of the society, but their armies are multi-ethnic. Can you count on a multi-ethnic all supporting a seizure of power? Probably not.
But the key for advanced democracies is not incentives or the likelihood of success. There has been a distinction made between a logic of consequences and a logic of appropriateness. People can be focused on what is the most efficient way to get what they want — the logic of consequences — or they can only consider to act in ways that are appropriate. In established democracies, officers and soldiers do not think it is their role to decide political outcomes. They do not think about the possibility of coups because the thought is entirely inappropriate, just as most of us do not consider cannibalism when we get a bit hungry. A coup in America would be unthinkable except that Hollywood reminds us that the military does own many of the guns with movies like Seven Days in May and the new TV series Last Resort. Still, the educational systems on both the civilian and military sides indoctrinate the military’s narrow role in America, Canada, and the rest of the advanced democracies. I am curious about how the French educational system considers the role of the military, given that it is the advanced democracy with the most recent coup attempt. But the central point is that there is such a strong consensus in society and in the military that a coup would be inappropriate that few consider the matter at all.
Of course, the challenge is how to get from a to b: how to get from a weak democracy with a powerful military to a strong democracy with a military that holds a narrower conception of its own role in the society? Time, and hard work. Legitimacy and norms do not happen overnight, no matter how much international organizations like NATO try to inculcate civilian control of the military. Birthing these norms requires powerful individuals to be strong enough to decline power and to refrain from taking it. George Washington ran for only two terms and then stepped down. He had ample opportunities to undermine the United States’ fragile democracy as his term in office faced more than a little bit of rebellion and enjoyed considerable authority. Dwight Eisenhower, with his record in the Oval Office and famous speech at the end presidency warning of the military-industrial complex, reminded everyone that former Generals may not necessarily be a peril for democracy.
This is the classic question for democracy, for institutions, and for political scientists: when do the writing on the parchments matter? When do institutions bind behavior? When people think that they do; when people believe that the rules are binding and act accordingly. In the advanced democracies, we often disagree about many things. We often talk about crises in civil-military relations, but we rarely imagine coups and never plan them. In this case, not thinking about something is the first step towards the best outcome.
This post is part of the “Would Someone Please Explain This to Me?” series.
Reader TJW asks: “Why have so many of Africa’s great revolutionaries – Meles, Museveni, Kagame, Mugabe, Afwerki – failed to give-up power once they gained it? Is this because leaders of rebel movements are hard-wired into authoritarian command-and-control types of politics even when out of the bush and in control of the state? Perhaps they come to associate national development, progress and stability with their own individual leadership? Or do plenty of revolutionaries become democrats?”
A common refrain in newspaper accounts on Africa is that that Africa’s lack of democracy and economic development is due to the poor quality of its leaders. If only Uganda, or Zimbabwe, or the Democratic Republic of Congo produced more Nelson Mandelas – more principled, less corrupt leaders – then poverty and violence would decline.
On the surface, this explanation appears to mirror what we see. Mugabe started as a rebel fighting for democratic ideals only to become one of the continent’s worst dictators. Perhaps there is something uniquely “bad” about Africa’s leaders – something that makes even the most revered freedom fighters corrupt and greedy once in office.
This explanation, however, ignores two structural features that are driving this bad behavior in many of Africa’s countries: rich resources and weak political institutions. Countries like Uganda and the DRC hold substantial resources that tempt leaders to line their pockets and use the money to easily buy off opponents. These countries also have few institutional restraints on their executives, making it easy for leaders to behave as they will. Most revolutionaries, when put in this structural situation, would likely behave the same way.
The revolutionaries who do become democrats, such as the IRA in Ireland, are the ones who already operate in a highly institutionalized environment where executive power is checked. In unrestrained environments where wealth is there for the taking and one’s time in office is uncertain, the incentives to plunder are often too strong to resist.
This post is part of the “Would Someone Please Explain This to Me?” series.
Pauline Moore asks: What do the recent horrific shootings in Colorado say about the nature of political violence in the U.S.?
Events of this sort are as common as the day is long in American history.* To see that, though, one has to adopt the proper temporal scales: the number of such events per year (or decade) and an examination over decades of American history. It turns out that the recent Aurora shooting in Colorado and the Sikh Temple massacre in Wisconsin fit into a long established trend of such events: lone mass murderers who either have no (recognizable) political agenda or are unable to mobilize others in concert to carry out their plans. Writing in the 1979 edition of Violence in America, Richard Maxwell Brown offers a historical tour of American violence. In the section titled “Freelance Multiple Murder” (pp. 33-4) he observes that these events have “historically aroused deep emotions of horror in the populace.” Recalling the summer of 1966, Brown writes:
“In the spate of a few weeks, two shocking mass murders occurred. First, in a single terrible night in Chicago, Richard F. Speck murdered, one by one, eight student nurses. Then, less than a month later, Charles Wittman ascended the tower of the University of Texas library in Austin and left tower and campus strewn with the bodies of 16 dead and 31 wounded as a result of his unerring marksmanship. The utter horror of these two killing rampages attracted world-wide attention, but not a year goes by without the appearance of one or more multiple murders” [emphasis mine].
The point, of course, is that as horrible as events like this are, they are common once we widen the lens of time. How many American readers are familiar with the May 18, 1927, Bath School Disaster in which Bath, Michigan school treasurer Andrew Kehoe expressed his ire over a property tax by beating his wife to death, setting his farm buildings on fire (which he rigged to explode when the fire department arrived), and then blew up the local elementary school, killing 38 children and four teachers, and wounding another more than 50 other children and adults?
What stands out to me, then, when the news reports yet another multiple murderer, is the absence of historical perspective. It seems to me that as a society we wish to play ostrich, sticking our head in the sand when faced with abhorrent behavior, and believe that is aberrant, even when it is not. That is, our collective desire to reinforce desirable social behavior trumps our collective interest in viewing the world as it is. As I wrote in a post on Will Opines after the most recent report about the Sandusky affair was made public, we engage in a public paroxysm of morality play narratives. The outcome: “ought” renders “is” unseeable.
I am currently reading Jim Scott’s The Art of Not Being Governed. In it he delivers a wonderful dismemberment of the civilization v barbarism trope made so influential in the 20th Century education of English speaking school children by Toynbee’s A Study of History. It seems to me that this dichotomy between civilized and barbaric societies bears some of the burden for what I consider ostrich-ism in American culture. Few historians have taken Toynbee seriously since the 1960s, but there is a long lag in time between change in the academy and change in textbooks, and his ideas still have deep roots in the minds of Americans over the age of 30 (and perhaps many of those younger).
I leave you with this thought experiment. There are more than an estimated 310 million people in the United States. What surprises you more: that so many multiple murders take place, or that so few do? Take the conflict and, to some extent, vitriol that is part and parcel to interpersonal interaction in life, couple it with the access to weapons ranging from knives to guns and rifles, and ask yourself how many of the 310 million people out there will commit multiple murder this year? What stands out to me is how few people engage in such activity. Yet, when uninvolved people are the victims of some murderer on a (usually brief) killing spree, we somehow lose contact with the adage: the exception that proves the rule.
* The number of such events appears to rise with US wars (presumably because the number of people with both weapons training and post traumatic stress disorder rises), but I am unfamiliar with systematic empirical inquiry on the question [if readers know of any, please post in the Comments].
** \neq is common computer code for the symbol “not equal”
This post is part of the “Would Someone Please Explain This to Me?” series. Thank you for all of the excellent questions readers asked, and we’ll do our best to answer them over the next few weeks.
“What do the recent horrific shootings in Colorado say about the nature of political violence in the U.S.? More broadly, what do events like this say about the nature of political violence in democracies? Most of the analysis offered on this blog has been dedicated to political violence in non-democratic states (understandably so, as the scale and intensity of political violence is greater in these countries, and the instances thereof much more frequent). But political violence certainly exists in democracies, albeit in drastically different form.”
I recently wrote an article that addressed some of these questions: “When Democracies Kill: Reflections from the US, India, and Northern Ireland”, published in the International Area Studies Review. I say “some” because (as is frequently the case) I am generally interested with what governments do and, as in most contexts, I maintain that they are responsible for most politically-related deaths on the planet — the sea and outer space are still up for grabs. I also consider deaths that governments are complicit in: i.e., deaths that they could stop if they put forth the effort.
This does and does not get at Pauline’s question. I believe that events like the shootings in Colorado tell us very little about the nature of “political violence” in the US. While mass shootings are violent and take place in the US, I think that there is very little about them that was “political” (i.e., they were not designed to influence who gets what, where and why; they do not directly nor indirectly involve the sovereign authority and proportionally they did not impact a large number of people). In part, this is because mass shooting like the attack in Aurora are typically limited to a single homicidal maniac with no grand agenda and no partners or affiliates. Clearly this is very different from the highly-politicized killing that took place in Norway last year, McVeigh’s bombing in Oklahoma and, more relevant to my discussion, people executed by the US government on a yearly basis, those tortured in “Gitmo” and Abu Ghraib as well as those victimized by police brutality.
Within “When Democracies Kill”, I argue that generally democratic governments appear to kill for political reasons when
(1) political threats are perceived by authorities as well as ordinary citizens, (2) when victims are not viewed as core members of the polity, (3) when some measure of legality is provided for the repressive process, and (4) when the application of repression is viewed as being small-scale and non-systematic. Three factors emerge from detailed case observations of political conflict within the United States, India, and Northern Ireland that I have been undertaking for various periods of time over the last 15 years. In this work, democracies appear to kill because of their (5) highly decentralized structure, (6) the fact that they engage in the worst activity before the polity is politically ‘opened’ and (7) relevant behavior takes place within areas that were created to be isolated from the rest of society (both psychologically as well as physically)
As one can see from the list, I am less concerned (although no less saddened and troubled) by the random actions of an insane few than I am the systematic and much more destructive acts of a seemingly rational many. Therefore, in the US I am less concerned with the Aurora killings and Colombine than the historical pattern of anti-black violence. By this, I am referring to the brutal activities unleashed during slavery between 1654-1860 (forced labor, killing, rape and torture), the period of lynching which followed 1880-1950 (torture and killing) as well as the inhumane and highly biased activities that exist within and outside of the prison system from the late 1800s to the present (i.e., psychological intimidation, imprisonment, beating, rape, torture and killing). These crimes were and are not few in number, they do not involve small numbers of individuals and, quite frequently, there is no question that agents of the government directly participated. In short, these are highly political in the traditional sense. If one includes “outrages” (i.e., anti-black activity undertaken right after the civil war), “race riots” (the white, anti-black ones of the early 1900s), church burnings from 1989-1996 as well as “hate crimes” from 1996-2009, the number of abuses, numbers of victims as well as perpetrators would skyrocket. When one also contemplates adding in black on black violence (gang related and otherwise), which I maintain is directly under the jurisdiction of the US government as it is supposed to protect the lives of all those who live under their domain, the reader’s head might just explode.
Now, I’m trying to get my head around these activities and with the sheer duration of time involved, the vastness of the degree of coordination across space and the significance of all this violence for not only the African American community but the US itself, it is clear that we have our work cut out for us – all of those that have an interest in political violence not just African Americans or those directly interested in/sympathetic to them. Indeed, as I just got a file with four million slaves from 1850, by plantation (indicating their age, race/color, perceived sanity and whether they had escaped), my team now contemplates what can be done with such information and they are slightly overwhelmed by how far we have to go before we can begin to understand what happened. Actually, feel free to join us at my unfinished and perhaps unfinishable project: Strange Fruit Incorporated.
I have selected violence specifically related to African Americans, for a variety of reasons. To have a conversation, however – a real conversation about violence in America — we would need to bring together information regarding Native Americans, women, Latinos, Asians, Whites and everybody else. To address and understand America the ugly, the whole pie, the whole melting pot needs to be identified, catalogued and then put back together. But, I suggest that we do not stop there. Violence in America needs to address the fact that political refugees from violence places around the world flock to the US. Does this have any influence the US or those entering? What impact does it have? Invoking a old, highly controversial but not well understood phrase, we need to pay attention to “structural violence” in the US and not just the most overt, most obvious manifestations. This is particularly relevant to the Native population but also African Americans, Latinos and poor Whites. Individuals die daily because of this activity/system but as there is no clearly identifiable weapon and perpetrator involved or, rather, the weapons and the perpetrators do not wear uniforms of the US government, as a community of scholars focused on quickly accumulated dead bodies, we have generally let this topic go. But, this is probably not appropriate – even given the conventional definition of politics offered above. If someone systematically and consistently does not get what is necessary to sustain life, if this knowledge is held by those in political power and if nothing is done, then this is as political as a political execution. Finally, Violence by America needs to be dealt with as well. The US is one of the leading actors in the world regarding violent activity (military and police related), training and weapons distribution (something related back to Violence in America, I suppose). With all that done perhaps we could speculate about the connections between Violence in and Violence by America. Perhaps then we could move beyond discussions of lone gunmen shooting up a movie theater in Colorado.
It’s summertime and constant writings about bombs, bullets, and battles are getting us down. So, in an effort to add some lightness and variety, we are instituting a segment called Would Someone Please Explain This To Me, or, more directly, What the #%$ is Going On Here? Readers are asked to submit any questions they like to our contributors (in the “Comments” section please). All we ask is that the questions be at least tangentially related to political violence. We promise to post the question we have chosen as well as our answers the following Wednesday.
So, what do you want to know?