Supporters of US President Donald Trump fight with riot police outside the Capitol building on 6 January 2021 in Washington, DC. (Photo by ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP via Getty Images)
Artillery Row

History shows that violence is ‘as American as cherry pie’

Violence is intrinsic to America and we shouldn’t expect it to cease being so when Donald Trump leaves office

After this week’s incursion by enraged Trump supporters into the US Capitol building – the home of Congress and thus equivalent to the Palace of Westminster – the airwaves were awash with pious outrage and explosions of indignation at this “unprecedented” attack on democracy. Beyond the pearl clutching, however, as even the most cursory acquaintance with US history will tell us, political violence, far from being unprecedented, is common and, as the saying goes, “as American as cherry pie”.

That saying, in fact, was minted during the 1960s – a decade rife with racial and political violence – by a man heavily involved in those struggles: one H. Rap Brown, a radical leader of the Black Power generation that followed the non-violent Civil Rights campaign led by Martin Luther King. Brown, a rather more militant figure than Reverend King, now calls himself Jamil al-Amin after converting to Islam while in gaol. He certainly practised what he preached when it came to violence: he is currently serving a life sentence without parole for shooting dead two black Sheriff’s deputies in 2000.

We need to go back much further than the Sixties to trace the origins and ubiquity of mass American violence, which, as Brown rightly identified, is an integral part of the very texture of American life. Because US society is superficially similar to Europe – and Britain in particular shares a language, history and culture with the States – we tend to overlook or ignore the profound differences between the two sides of the Atlantic.

The early white settlers in North America found themselves on the edge of a vast continent populated by indigenous native Americans whom they proceeded to exterminate. Guns were an integral part of American life and society; possession of which by private citizens was enshrined in the constitution that accompanied the bloody Independence War with Britain during the 1770s. War flared again between the two nations in 1812 when British troops occupied Washington and famously burned the White House – an incident compared to which the brief occupation of the Capitol by rioters was a mere trifle.

Britain’s long history of parliamentary democracy has seen just one PM assassinated, in contrast to America’s four

Half a century later, the “United” States was once again engulfed in violence as it broke apart in the 1861-5 Civil War. The gruesome conflict saw 600,000 Americans die out of a total population of only 30 million. Just one of its many battles, Antietam, was the bloodiest single day in American history when almost 23,000 Americans became casualties. The president who launched the illegal war, the sainted Abraham Lincoln, could have taught Donald Trump a thing or two about illegality, trashing the constitution and trampling on law and democracy as “honest Abe” shut down newspapers, jailed journalists without trial, and simply ignored the rulings of the Supreme Court – supposedly the sacred third pillar in the trinity of the Constitution.

Lincoln paid the price for his dictatorial conduct when he was assassinated in a Washington theatre in April 1865 just as the war was ending. The identity of the assassin, John Wilkes Booth, shows that America’s propensity for violence is not confined to the criminal classes. A member of America’s best known theatrical dynasty, Booth was himself a talented and famous thespian – an exact British equivalent to his crime would be Michael Redgrave gunning down Winston Churchill at the Old Vic in the week World War Two ended in 1945.

Lincoln was the first of the four American presidents to die at the hands of gunmen. He was followed by James Garfield (shot by a deranged lobbyist); William McKinley (victim of an anarchist); and John F. Kennedy – probably murdered by a lone wolf Marxist malcontent. Three other presidents – F. D. Roosevelt, Gerald Ford, and Ronald Reagan – were also the targets of serious assassination attempts. By comparison, Britain’s long history of parliamentary democracy has seen just one prime minister – Spencer Percival – assassinated.

Slavery was the chief issue that caused the Civil War. The cruel enslavement of African Americans originally shipped to the Southern States to work the cotton plantations there is, in the words of southern Civil War historian Shelby Foote, “a stain on America’s soul that will never be eradicated.” But less poetically it is also, alongside the genocide of Native Americans, the most outstanding example of sustained mass violence in the country’s short history.

The blight of slavery – officially abolished by Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 – in fact lingered on in the South (in terms of the oppression and disadvantaging of black people) for another century until the Civil Rights movement of the Sixties. The final passage into law of Civil Rights legislation was also accompanied by horrendous violence: lynching, church burnings, and the murders of black leaders like Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and, of course, Martin Luther King himself.

King died in 1968, the same year that saw the murder of President Kennedy’s brother Bobby as he ran for the presidency himself. At the same time that American cities were exploding in racial riots, the country was convulsed by the running sore of its involvement in the Vietnam War: protests against the war culminated in the fatal shooting of unarmed students by National Guardsmen at Kent State university in 1970.

The “rule of law” so often evoked by those who condemn Trump and the “basket of deplorables” who follow him has often been turned against ordinary Americans, and not just black ones. In 1932, for example, at the height of the Great Depression, thousands of World War One veterans, known as the “Bonus Marchers” descended on Washington with their families and camped out on the capital’s streets to demand the benefits to which they were entitled. The authorities’ answer was to open fire on them – killing four – and then burn down their encampment.

Violence is part of what it means to be American

Nor is everyday violence exclusive to political matters: the organised crime culture of Mafia Mob violence, itself inextricably entwined with politics and celebrated in the films of Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola, is just as deeply engrained and seemingly ineradicable. Hollywood itself is a temple to the American way of violence and death; movies ranging from old school Westerns to the more graphic depictions from the likes of Quentin Tarantino linger over grotesque violence in truly loving lubricious detail.

In recent years another form of violence has become endemic in America: the mass killings perpetrated by a whole range of nut jobs. The phenomenon took off with the truck bombing of a Federal building in Oklahoma which killed 168 in 1995, which remains the highest terrorist death toll in US history outside of 9/11. Since then, and largely thanks to the easy availability of guns, there have been numerous deadly shootings in shopping malls, schools and on the city streets.

Violence is part of what it means to be American and we shouldn’t expect it to cease being so when Donald Trump is dragged kicking and screaming from office. Rather, I fear, the reverse.

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