When I was younger, I spent a lot of time watching videos on preparedness made by an old Army Ranger. I won’t name him in this article since he deleted his Youtube channel, probably because he was experiencing serious issues due to his traumatic brain injury sustained during his service. Preparedness gets a bad rap because of shows like “Doomsday Preppers” that focus on a paranoid, reclusive, and misanthropic subculture that promotes the survival of the individual regardless of the cost to friends, neighbors, and society as a whole. I did not get this impression from this old Army Ranger. He was soft spoken, gentle, community focused, and informed. A lot of the things he talked about came out to be relevant later in my life, whether it was witnessing the rise of ISIS, the formation of a Kurdish autonomous zone in northern Syria, or the infamous panic buying that came with the outbreak of COVID-19.
Now, as political instability racks the United States of America, some of the things he talked about have become too relevant to ignore. Talking about victims of the Bosnian Genocide, he noticed that victims of all types of disasters had a thought in common: they never could have imagined something like that would have happened to them. Not in their country. Not from their neighbors. Disturbingly enough, the Bosnian Genocide seems to have acted as an inspiration for many of the most horrific acts of terror in recent memory, including the white-supremacist who live-streamed the massacre of 51 Muslims in two separate mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand. As New Zealand’s terror threat level was raised to high for the first time in its history, the Prime Minister echoed the sentiment: how could this have happened here?
“For those of you who are watching at home tonight and questioning how this could have happened here, we, New Zealand, we are not a target because we are a safe harbour for those who hate, we were not chosen for this violence because we condone racism, because we are an enclave for extremism, we were chosen for the fact we represent none of these things. Because we represent diversity, kindness, compassion, a home for those who share our values, refuge for those who need it.”
Perhaps it’s a sort of optimism that leads us to fall into this trap. We want to think that we’ve moved beyond the barbarism of the past, that we’ve learned our lesson. When Obama was elected president, it gave hope to a lot of Americans that we had moved on to a post-racial America. We hadn’t. Trump has continued to use racially charged language throughout his political career, and continues to support a police state that disproportionately targets black people. Anecdotally, I remember thinking that white supremacists were laughable cowards during my high school days. I would troll white supremacist websites for a laugh, thinking that although there were a surprising number of them they were too scared and weak to do anything. Then came the Unite the Right rally, the rise of neo-Nazis like Richard Spencer, and the flood of “race realist” ideology from people like Stefan Molyneux.
There’s a quote I really like from Ernest Hemingway about how people go bankrupt: gradually, and then suddenly. There’s something very visceral to me thinking about the slow buildup followed by an intense, unstoppable crash, almost like the escalation at the beginning of a rollercoaster. Comparing current events to those of the past is always going to be problematic since every time in human history is unique. I do, however, want to discuss the slow burn of the Nazi’s rise to power and leave it up to you whether any of it sounds familiar.
First, the infamous Bier Hall Putsch, a failed attempt to overthrow the government that lead to some oddly light jail sentences and a quick release from prison. After finding that the ideology had difficulty making inroads in cities, the party began targeting rural areas. They promised to return the country to its foundational cultural values, bring jobs back, restore the country’s position as a world power, and defend the nation from a communist uprising. They painted political rivals as criminals and promised to hold them responsible for their bad international treaties and betraying the people to consolidate their own power. Over time, debate began to break down, and the left and right wing were no longer able to communicate with each other. Street fights broke out between communists and fascists as big business began bankrolling Nazi political campaigns. The Great Depression led to a dissolution of coalition politics, and president Paul von Hindenburg invoked emergency powers to deal with the crisis. Through political maneuvering, Hitler became Chancellor of Germany.
Then, an arson of a national monument, the Reichstag, was attributed to a Dutch communist, leading to a decree declaring communists enemies of the state and suspending civil liberties. Continuing to establish his dictatorship through legal means, Hitler eliminated the legislative authority of the parliament with the help of centrists and conservatives. One such conservative was Martin Niemöller, a Lutheran pastor who supported the regime and its violence towards communism. Niemöller went from praising Hitler as an “instrument sent by god” to opposing the regime after experiencing repression and censorship of his religious doctrine and later learning that he and other bishops had been wire tapped by the Gestapo. He was later sent to a concentration camp, although he survived to the end of the war in Dachau and wrote one of the most famous quotes of all time.
After the apparent kidnapping of protestors in Portland (here are two videos I find explain the intricacies of this pretty well), this quote went from a trite, misused, cliche to almost prophetical in my mind. For years I had seen the right conflate liberals with progressives with socialists with communists with anarchists. With Trump threatening to designate Antifa (a loosely defined political movement opposed to fascism) as a terrorist organization and labeling Joe Biden as a tool of the “radical left”, it seemed inevitable that the administration would begin to conflate any form of violence associated with left wing politics with the entirety of centrist and left wing thought. Trump has begun to use federal officers as a tool to persecute and intimidate his political rivals. This is not something our Democracy can stand, and I wanted to explain that to people on the right. Many in the military have come out in support of Black Lives Matter and denounced the use of federal officers to quell protests. If the majority of the population condemns the use of militarized officers, the executive branch will be stuck between a rock and a hard place. They’ll have no legitimacy with which to operate.
I have not had very much luck reaching across the aisle. In my experience interacting with the right I have seen many gleeful at the prospect of killing and hunting “Antifas”. One comment on the post above talked about gutting their “kill”, tossing it in the bed of a truck and driving around for hours so others could admire it. Often times when I post the Niemöller quote, the response I get is that communists aren’t people and don’t deserve human rights. One person responded saying that communists, trade unionists, and JEWS were the ones who I should worry about being oppressed by. My attempts at reaching across the aisle are consistently met with apathy and antagonism, and the stress I feel from it is often overwhelming.
I still think it’s worth it. We know from Syria and numerous other examples that government crackdowns lead to intensified protests, government violence leads to uprisings, and uprisings often lead to brutal, drawn out civil wars. People who desperately want change should look into these wars and understand that they usually do not result in the change they want. The revolution in Syria was hijacked by various world powers, used as a proxy war for international rivals, taken advantage of by terrorists with no respect for human rights, and destabilized entirely. There is no reason to believe that the paramount geopolitical power in the world would escape such a fate.
The only way to stop this is getting everyone on the same page. In the current political climate, demonstrating your humanity in itself can be a radical act. Social media gives us an opportunity to reach out to people who would otherwise be completely isolated from perspectives outside of their communities. It’s not realistic to expect people to change their minds based on a single conversation, but it’s possible to plant the seeds for change and humanize the opposition in their minds. If someone is rude and hateful towards you and you remain calm and steadfast in your views, people reading the conversation may find themselves empathizing more with you than with the people they’re supposed to be agreeing with. If you find yourself getting angry and unable to have a rational conversation with someone, it’s okay and probably essential to disengage and take a mental health break. Your time is valuable, and once you’ve explained your position there’s no need to get in the weeds with someone who rejects all of your views out of hand. Remember: the objective is to break down barriers, humanize your position, and get people questioning and curious. War is just politics by other means, so we might as well start out trying to win at the politics part.