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America Is a Powder Keg

Kyle Rittenhouse, hatred, and fear.
September 3, 2020
America Is a Powder Keg

1. Civil Conflict

The fetishization of Kyle Rittenhouse by some people on the right is one of the most dangerous and irresponsible actions we have witnessed in a long time.

When we have a full and complete understanding of the facts and circumstances surrounding Rittenhouse’s killing of two people, it is possible that these facts will demonstrate that Rittenhouse’s actions were legally justified and that the entire incident is a tragedy which demonstrates (a) how violence begets violence and (b) the importance of deescalating large-scale conflicts.

It is possible that we will come to find that Kyle Rittenhouse didn’t want to kill anyone and the people he shot didn’t want to seriously hurt him either, but that a series of awful decisions led to two people losing their lives and Rittenhouse having his soul eternally marred—a situation where (a) everyone loses; (b) we realize how precious life is; and (c) that we ought to be more careful as a society.

It is also possible that we’ll find that Rittenhouse committed either premeditated or straight murder—that he came to Wisconsin with the intent to kill, or that he meant to kill without having a reasonable fear for his own life. Or negligent homicide—that he didn’t intend to kill anyone, but was willfully reckless. It’s possible that we’ll find that he committed manslaughter—that the killings were truly accidental, but not willfully so.

The one thing that should absolutely not be on offer is the glamorization of Rittenhouse as a positive example of sound decisions leading to a good outcome.

And yet, here we are.

If this has you depressed about the near-term future of America, I’m not here to help.

Consider this long essay by David Kilkullen looking at the rise of both right-wing and left-wing militias and the ways in which the two groups have been preparing for open conflict:

There were already many militias of varying political complexions across America — one pro-militia website lists 361 groups across all 50 states. Membership surged after the 2008 financial crisis, then accelerated as thugs from both political extremes fought each other with baseball bats, ­bicycle chains and pepper spray in the streets of Washington, DC, Seattle, Portland and Detroit. The deadly “Unite the Right” rally in the normally sleepy university town of Charlottesville, Virginia, in August 2017 brought the danger home to many Americans, but the trend was longstanding. . . .

Far-left militias such as Redneck Revolt and the John Brown Gun Club emerged, copying the methods and military-style weapons of right-wing militias while opposing their politics. Both far-right and far-left armed groups were at Charlottesville, with ­cadres of gun-carrying militants guarding protesters on both sides and a third-party “constitutionalist” militia, the Oath Keepers — composed mainly of military and law-enforcement veterans — standing by as self-appointed umpires.

In the west, a separate rural militia movement had already coalesced around “sovereign citizen” groups that rejected federal authority. Despite media portrayals of its leaders as racially motivated, in fact the sovereign citizen ideology is neither left nor right in a traditional sense — it might better be described as a form of militant libertarianism with roots in the self-reliant cowboy culture of the old west. . . .

[D]uring the 2016 election campaign, ­Arizona militias mounted armed patrols to support his border wall. In response, Redneck Revolt held a heavily armed show of force in Phoenix, Arizona, later posting a YouTube video showing members shooting semiautomatic rifles at targets displaying alt-right symbols. A few months later, Antifa convened an “anti-colonial anti-fascist community defence gathering” near Flagstaff, Arizona, that included weapons training and coaching in anti-police tactics. Today, far-left and far-right groups operate within close striking distance of each other in several border states and in “contested zones” including the Pacific Northwest, parts of Michigan, Pennsylvania, Virginia and the Carolinas. . . .

The pandemic — and the grievances inspired by heavy-handed responses to it — have brought these tensions to a head. Camouflage-clad militia sporting semiautomatic rifles and body ­armour and riding in military-­surplus trucks joined an armed protest against the governor of Pennsylvania in April. Similar protests took place in Ohio and North Dakota. A week later demonstrators, some carrying AK-47 rifles, swarmed into the state ­capital in Lansing, Michigan, to confront politicians.

A racial edge also emerged: a week after the Lansing incident a group of African-Americans, armed with AR-15 rifles and automatic pistols, mounted a show of force outside the Michigan State Capitol building to support a black member of the legislature. Class inequities, which track closely with racial disparities here, have prompted socialist groups — notably Antifa but also traditionally nonviolent Trotskyist and anarchist networks — to arm themselves for an incipient revolutionary moment.

So . . . not great, Bob.

Kilcullen suggests that what’s at the root of everything here isn’t hatred, but fear:

One reason for the overemphasis on right-wing extremism, I believe, is that analysts often mis­characterise armed actors as “hate groups”. It is absolutely true that the intense hatred from right-wing extremists dwarfs most other groups. But the focus on hate is a misunderstanding of what drives violence in internal conflicts.

As Stathis Kalyvas demonstrated a decade ago in The Logic of Violence in Civil War, the worst atrocities are driven not by hate but by fear. Fear of other groups, encroachment of those groups into one’s territory and collapse of confidence in government’s ability to impartially keep the peace are the key factors that provoke communal violence. Hate follows and rationalises fear, not the other way around. And fear of the coronavirus, alongside the demonstrable inability of government to keep people safe, is driving today’s growth in armed militancy.

But now we get to the really depressing stuff:

To me, current conditions feel disturbingly similar to things I have seen in Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, Somalia and Colombia. Indeed, the theory of guerrilla and unconventional warfare fits today’s situation all too well.

If we visualise an armed movement as a pyramid, then the thousands of protesters on the street (and the tens of thousands who support and sympathise with them but stay home) represent the mass base. A smaller group of organisers and support networks (physical and virtual) plays an auxiliary role further up the pyramid. The armed, gun-toting element is smaller still, but higher in skill, weaponry, organisation and motivation. It’s worth remembering that almost three million Americans served in Iraq and Afghanistan, coming home familiar with urban and rural guerrilla warfare to a country where 41 per cent of people own a gun or live with someone who does.

Here is the thing: One of the boring, hypocritical norms of elite politics over the last 50 years has been the insistence at the top of the political world in going through rote condemnations of violent actors and rote paying of respects to victims of violence. Even if you suspected that the people doing the condemning or paying the respects didn’t really care.

Donald Trump broke that norm.

He knows that a lot of the people who showed up at Charlottesville and Lansing and Kenosha are his voters, and he’s always going to be loyal to his people. So he refuses to condemn them. And Trump never actually gave a crap about John Lewis or anything John Lewis stood for, so he skipped Lewis’s funeral.

Whatever else you want to say about it, this is honesty, of a sort.

But it turns out that those boring, rote, hypocritical norms are important. It’s important when George W. Bush comes out and vouches for Islam as a religion of peace. It’s important when Nancy Pelosi and Dianne Feinstein and Bernie Sanders stand shoulder to shoulder with Steve Scalice.

I happen to think that all four of those leaders meant what they said, but the point is that it doesn’t especially matter whether or not they meant it in their heart of hearts. The fact that they understood they had a duty to say the words was what meant something.

Because that’s how you cut down on the numbers of people in those extremist “mass bases” and keep the pyramids of civil conflict to a smaller, less-deadly size.

All of these norms and traditions have (had?) very real functions in society. And as Donald Trump and his enablers break them, we all pay the price.

2. COVID and Computers

Warning: There will be math on the test:

Earlier this summer, the Summit supercomputer at Oak Ridge National Lab in Tennessee set about crunching data on more than 40,000 genes from 17,000 genetic samples in an effort to better understand Covid-19. Summit is the second-fastest computer in the world, but the process — which involved analyzing 2.5 billion genetic combinations — still took more than a week.

When Summit was done, researchers analyzed the results. It was, in the words of Dr. Daniel Jacobson, lead researcher and chief scientist for computational systems biology at Oak Ridge, a “eureka moment.” The computer had revealed a new theory about how Covid-19 impacts the body: the bradykinin hypothesis. The hypothesis provides a model that explains many aspects of Covid-19, including some of its most bizarre symptoms. It also suggests 10-plus potential treatments, many of which are already FDA approved. Jacobson’s group published their results in a paper in the journal eLife in early July.

According to the team’s findings, a Covid-19 infection generally begins when the virus enters the body through ACE2 receptors in the nose, (The receptors, which the virus is known to target, are abundant there.) The virus then proceeds through the body, entering cells in other places where ACE2 is also present: the intestines, kidneys, and heart. This likely accounts for at least some of the disease’s cardiac and GI symptoms.

But once Covid-19 has established itself in the body, things start to get really interesting. According to Jacobson’s group, the data Summit analyzed shows that Covid-19 isn’t content to simply infect cells that already express lots of ACE2 receptors. Instead, it actively hijacks the body’s own systems, tricking it into upregulating ACE2 receptors in places where they’re usually expressed at low or medium levels, including the lungs. . . .

The renin–angiotensin system (RAS) controls many aspects of the circulatory system, including the body’s levels of a chemical called bradykinin, which normally helps to regulate blood pressure. According to the team’s analysis, when the virus tweaks the RAS, it causes the body’s mechanisms for regulating bradykinin to go haywire. Bradykinin receptors are resensitized, and the body also stops effectively breaking down bradykinin. (ACE normally degrades bradykinin, but when the virus downregulates it, it can’t do this as effectively.)

The end result, the researchers say, is to release a bradykinin storm — a massive, runaway buildup of bradykinin in the body. According to the bradykinin hypothesis, it’s this storm that is ultimately responsible for many of Covid-19’s deadly effects. Jacobson’s team says in their paper that “the pathology of Covid-19 is likely the result of Bradykinin Storms rather than cytokine storms,” which had been previously identified in Covid-19 patients, but that “the two may be intricately linked.”

If you’re into this stuff, you should read the whole thing.

3. The Library Heist

Someone call Philip Baker Hall:

Like nuclear power plants and sensitive computer networks, the safest rare book collections are protected by what is known as “defense in depth”—a series of small, overlapping measures designed to thwart a thief who might be able to overcome a single deterrent. The Oliver Room, home to the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh’s rare books and archives, was something close to the platonic ideal of this concept. Greg Priore, manager of the room starting in 1992, designed it that way.

The room has a single point of entry, and only a few people had keys to it. When anyone, employee or patron, entered the collection, Priore wanted to know. The room had limited daytime hours, and all guests were required to sign in and leave personal items, like jackets and bags, in a locker outside. Activity in the room was under constant camera surveillance.

In addition, the Oliver Room had Priore himself. His desk sat at a spot that commanded the room and the table where patrons worked. When a patron returned a book, he checked that it was still intact. Security for special collections simply does not get much better than that of the Oliver Room.

In the spring of 2017, then, the library’s administration was surprised to find out that many of the room’s holdings were gone. It wasn’t just that a few items were missing. It was the most extensive theft from an American library in at least a century, the value of the stolen objects estimated to be $8 million.

Read the whole thing. (And bonus points if you get the PBH joke.)

Jonathan V. Last

Jonathan V. Last is editor of The Bulwark.