On political violence
The Times formulates political violence as a moral question. Is it OK to punch Nazis? Do ethics permit it? This is a natural impulse and in my observation the most common angle by which the question is taken up, but I suppose I should tell you now that this strikes me as the most wrongheaded way to go about asking. The trouble is not so much with the question itself, which is as profound as any, but with the answers it elicits, which are invariably useless or cheap. I read a thousand takes and tweets, condemning white nationalism but reminding readers that this is America and it is never acceptable to strike somebody because of their political opinion. I am reminded, over and over, that in a free society we shut down bad ideas with debate, not riots. We peacefully assemble. We call our representatives. We don’t smash the windows of a Bank of America. When we do that, are we any better than the illiberal forces we’re protesting? No, the answers come.
Perhaps this is the virtuous answer, but it does not escape my notice that those who are most eager to give it are not subject to the dilemma in bodily terms. “There were two ‘Reigns of Terror,’” Mark Twain wrote of the French Revolution. “The one wrought murder in hot passion, the other in heartless cold blood; the one lasted mere months, the other had lasted a thousand years; the one inflicted death upon ten thousand persons, the other upon a hundred millions; but our shudders are all for the ‘horrors’ of the minor Terror, the momentary Terror.” Perhaps the saints in heaven know that the blood spilled at Blair Mountain could not be pardoned, but they would judge the perpetrators of exploitation, too. They would see not only the five days of battle but also the evictions and assassinations and theft carried out for years against the residents of company towns. The mine operators broke men’s backs in exchange for a pittance; they left families to die in the cold. It is easier to declare a moral prohibition on political violence when your children are not starving.