Op-Ed

The spiral of violence in Charlottesville

First responders help the injured after a car driven by a man who grew up in Northern Kentucky rammed counter protesters, killing a 32-year-old woman and injuring 19 others. Nazis and other white supremacists were in Charlottesville, Va. protesting the removal of a statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee.
First responders help the injured after a car driven by a man who grew up in Northern Kentucky rammed counter protesters, killing a 32-year-old woman and injuring 19 others. Nazis and other white supremacists were in Charlottesville, Va. protesting the removal of a statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee. Associated Press

Commentators on both left and right were understandably outraged by President Trump’s initially tepid remarks about the violence in Charlottesville. He condemned what he referred to as “violence on many sides.”

Can you imagine his words if the driver of that car in Virginia had been Muslim?

Yet, the president’s (for once) measured response proves to be unwittingly perceptive and wise.

That’s because in Charlottesville, there was indeed violence on many sides. In fact, if we adopted Trump’s low-key perspective, our responses to violence in any form might be similarly measured and sage. It would help us recognize that in Charlottesville only the antifa violence enjoyed any degree of justification.

Let me explain.

Violence is never one-dimensional. As Dom Helder Camara, the sainted Catholic archbishop of Recife in Brazil, pointed out years ago, in most cases, there is a predictable “spiral of violence” that is often overlooked. It involves structures, self-defense, police response and sometimes terrorism on the part of individuals and (most often) the state.

Consider Charlottesville; it clarifies by representing every turn of the spiral.

In the eyes of African-Americans, the statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee represents the structural violence of slavery and white supremacy. Such institutionalized violence is invisible to most whites. However, the alt right reaction to the statue’s removal finally rendered the monuments real institutionally violent meaning unmistakable. It represents white nationalism, and not “Southern pride” after all. As a result, nationalists’ march was itself an act of institutionalized violence.

That violent assertion of white supremacy led to a second level of violence on the part of African-Americans and their allies. When their peaceful protest was attacked by the white nationalists, the protestors defended themselves — yes, violently. Archbishop Camara identified such self-defense (against institutionalized cruelty) as virtually the only form our culture recognizes (and typically condemns) as violence. And yet, it is perhaps, the only justifiable type. Everyone has the right to self-defense.

The third level of violence entered when the Charlottesville police “stood down” in the face of the mayhem taking place before their eyes. Usually, police (third level) response simply restores the violent status quo ante. Ironically, however, in the case of Charlottesville, it was police inaction that represented Camara’s third level of violence. Their standing-down facilitated the alt-right attacks.

Finally, in Charlottesville last weekend, there was the terroristic violence of the Nazi sympathizer and Trump supporter who murdered Heather Heyer and injured many others when he plowed his car into those demonstrating against the institutionalized violence of white supremacists. That’s the fourth turn in the “spiral of violence.” In the case of Charlottesville, such terrorism too was aligned with violence’s structural form.

Unfortunately, the driver’s terroristic expression might soon be institutionalized itself as states like North Carolina are on the verge of granting motorists the legal right to run over protestors who might be blocking traffic. In that case, an individual’s terroristic act would be transformed into state terrorism, which happens to be terrorism’s most common incarnation as seen, for example, in drone killings, torture and threats of nuclear war.

So, as you can see, the president was right. Violence is indeed many-sided. Applying Trump’s Principle of Understanding might well make him and all of us much more thoughtful and cautious in responding to tragedies like Charlottesville. It would always prompt us to examine context and make crucial distinctions. It would help us recognize that of all forms of violence, only the second (self-defensive) level has any hope of justification at all.

After two days of criticism, Trump specifically condemned the Ku Klux Klan, neo-Nazis and white supremacists.

Trump’s initial response, inadvertently, reminded us that violence is a powerful word. We should be careful in its use and in any actions it might inspire.

Reach Mike Rivage-Seul, retired Berea College professor and former priest, at Mike_Rivage-Seul @berea.edu.

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