Barbara F. Walter, 57, is a political science professor at the University of California at San Diego and the author of “How Civil Wars Start: And How to Stop Them,” which was released in January. She lives in San Diego with her husband and spoke to the Washington Post about the possibility of civil war in the United States.
What do you say to people who charge that this is all overblown, that civil war could never happen here in the United States — or that you’re being inflammatory and making things worse by putting corrosive ideas out there?
Oh, there’s so many things to say. One thing is that groups — we’ll call them violence entrepreneurs, the violent extremists who want to tear everything down and want to institute their own radical vision of society — they benefit from the element of surprise, right? They want people to be confused when violence starts happening. They want people to not understand what’s going on, to think that nobody’s in charge. Because then they can send their goons into the streets and convince people that they’re the ones in charge. Which is why when I would talk to people who lived through the start of the violence in Sarajevo or Baghdad or Kyiv, they all say that they were surprised. And they were surprised in part because they didn’t know what the warning signs were.
But also because people had a vested interest in distracting them or denying it so that when an attack happened, or when you had paramilitary troops sleeping in the hills outside of Sarajevo, they would make up stories. You know, “We’re just doing training missions.” Or “We’re just here to protect you. There’s nothing going on here. Don’t worry about this.”
I wish it were the case that by not talking about it we could prevent anything from happening. But the reality is, if we don’t talk about it, [violent extremists] are going to continue to organize, and they’re going to continue to train. There are definitely lots of groups on the far right who want war. They are preparing for war. And not talking about it does not make us safer.
What we’re heading toward is an insurgency, which is a form of a civil war. That is the 21st-century version of a civil war, especially in countries with powerful governments and powerful militaries, which is what the United States is. And it makes sense. An insurgency tends to be much more decentralized, often fought by multiple groups. Sometimes they’re actually competing with each other. Sometimes they coordinate their behavior. They use unconventional tactics. They target infrastructure. They target civilians. They use domestic terror and guerrilla warfare. Hit-and-run raids and bombs. We’ve already seen this in other countries with powerful militaries, right? The IRA took on the British government. Hamas has taken on the Israeli government. These are two of the most powerful militaries in the world. And they fought for decades. And in the case of Hamas I think we could see a third intifada. And they pursue a similar strategy.
Here it’s called leaderless resistance. And that method of how to defeat a powerful government like the United States is outlined in what people are calling the bible of the far right: “The Turner Diaries,” which is this fictitious account of a civil war against the U.S. government. It lays out how you do this. And one of the things it says is, Do not engage the U.S. military. You know, avoid it at all costs. Go directly to targets around the country that are difficult to defend and disperse yourselves so it’s hard for the government to identify you and infiltrate you and eliminate you entirely.
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