Is the U.S. Already in a New Civil War?

Experts say that a new civil conflict will look nothing like the last American Civil War, but that the country is on the verge of large scale political violence.
October 27, 2020, 1:16pm
GettyImages-607610082
Image: Getty Images

America’s COVID-19 numbers aren’t under control. In many places they're getting worse. Large portions of the west coast are on fire, social media is fueling genocides, and political violence in the U.S. is increasing. People are marching in the streets, aligned with two ideologically distinct factions. Many of them (overwhelmingly from one side) are armed, and violence and death has resulted when these two sides have clashed.

The signs of a coming conflict are everywhere. Political polarization is up, gun and ammunition sales have spiked, killers such as Kyle Rittenhouse are being lauded by their political allies, and protests are widespread in American cities. Police kill unarmed people in the street, the government is polarized and corrupt, and our institutions are failing. Armed militias patrol U.S. streets and groups like the Atomwaffen Division and the Base plot to start a larger conflict. Mass shootings, sometimes ideologically motivated and other times not, occur frequently. Poverty and unemployment are widespread as mass evictions loom and Congress stalls to help those in need.

In Philadelphia last night, protestors surrounded a police precinct after an officer shot and killed 27 year old Walter Wallace Jr. Wallace had a history of mental illness and had a knife, when officers approached and opened fire. His mother begged them not to shoot. In the aftermath of the shooting, protestors have smashed windows and spray painted the police substation. Police say 30 officers have been hurt and one who was hit by a pickup truck has been hospitalized for a broken leg.

This is all happening during an election year, and we have a sect of the president's supporters who have vowed to show up at polling places armed. If you have a terrible and ominous feeling about all this, you’re not alone.

Some on the far right are talking about another civil war. Some experts who have studied sectarian violence in the United States and other countries think we're already in one.

INCIPIENT INSURGENCY

According to several experts I spoke with, a new civil conflict will look nothing like the first American Civil War. It’s not likely that clear sides will be drawn up with massive armies of Americans marching towards each other as drones strike from above. An insurgency is more likely—a period of sustained and distributed conflict where non-state actors carry out violence to achieve a political goal. Several said they believe we’re already in the early stages of one, a period before large-scale political violence the CIA defines as an “incipient insurgency.”

“A conflict in the pre-insurgency stage is difficult to detect because most activities are underground and the insurgency has yet to make its presence felt through the use of violence,” the CIA Guide to the Analysis of Insurgency says in its definition of the incipient insurgency phase. “Moreover, actions conducted in the open can easily be dismissed as nonviolent political activity. During this stage, an insurgent movement is beginning to organize: leadership is emerging, and the insurgents are establishing a grievance and a group identity, beginning to recruit and train members, and stockpiling arms and supplies.”

There are plenty of examples from around the world for what this might look like, and many civil wars today do not have soldiers marching on the battlefield. The early stage of the Syrian Civil War was fought by paramilitary groups in neighborhoods. For 30 years in Ireland, insurgent groups policed the streets, disappeared people from their homes, assassinated political enemies, and bombed buildings. The "Colombian conflict" was an asymmetrical war that lasted almost 60 years and involved various guerrilla groups (most famously the FARC) fighting each other and the government. During the Years of Lead in Italy, right-wing terrorists colluded with the police and assassinated leftists political leaders.

These and other conflicts are overwhelmingly what civil war looks like now. Armed groups with various objectives vying for territory, and cultural and political influence, often violently. According to several experts, if America goes to war with itself, it won’t look like it did in 1860. It’ll look more like Belfast in 1972 or Aleppo in 2011. But even these analogies fall short.

It’s hard to find direct historical analogues for what’s happening in the United States right now. This kind of political violence and civil strife isn’t new, but there’s a lot of factors that make America unique. The United States is a large country spread out across millions of square miles, social media is fueling the conflict, and our populace is heavily armed.

People, it is fair to say, are scared.

The strongest indicator that shit is about to get extremely bad is not hate. There’s always hate. It’s fear,” David Kilcullen, a member of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) nonprofit foundation, told me during a Zoom call. Kilcullen is a counter-insurgency strategist who serves on the FDD’s board of advisors for its Center on Military and Political Power. He was also the Chief Strategist in the Office of the Coordinator for Counterterrorism at the U.S. State Department from 2005 to 2006.

Because he studied insurgencies, Kilcullen knows what the early stages of a civil conflict look like, and he’s not excited about America’s future.

“The worst atrocities come from fear, not hate. Because people think they’re good,” he said. “And they can justify incredible atrocious violence to themselves on the basis that it is defensive…you need a belief that some other group is encroaching on your territory. And then you need to have lost confidence in the ability of the state to act as an impartial and neutral protector. We’re already losing that confidence because of COVID.”

Kilcullen isn’t the only person who thinks America is close to something incredibly dangerous.

“We are in a state of civil war, whenever, in more than one geographical location in the United States it becomes commonplace for multiple non-state armed groups, to fight each other with deadly force. When that is an occurrence that is common in more than one location in the country, that’s a civil war,” Robert Evans told me over the phone. Evans is a conflict journalist who’s reported from Ukraine, Syria, and Iraq. His work has appeared in Bellingcat where he reports on modern American extremist movements. He’s also a podcaster and his 2019 podcast “It Could Happen Here” described the possibility of a new American Civil War.

“To most people, the idea of a second American Civil War feels more like science fiction than a possible future,” Evans said on “It Could Happen Here.” “It feels silly when I stand in line at the DMV or hop on to a public bus or train. The systems that govern our lives here are so seemingly intricate, so stable, and so settled that any kind of mass upset feels impossible. Fantastic even. But I have walked through the cities where the busses still run, just without windows because the blast from mortars have blown them all out. I’ve watched people stand in line and fill out forms in government buildings while howitzers shake the foundations and machine guns chatter half a mile away. I have seen systems collapse. Everything I’ve seen and everything I’ve read over the past two years has convinced me that the United States is closer to that kind of terror than anyone is willing to admit.”

COLLAPSE IS NOT EVENLY DISTRIBUTED

Adam Isacson, director of the Defense Oversight Program at WOLA—a group that advocates for human rights in Latin America, says a civil war in the U.S. could look a lot like the Colombian civil war, where violence is happening but it's not evenly distributed across the country. Like many current foreign conflicts, for most Americans a civil war, even one in their own country, will just be something they see on TV.

Even now, much of what's happening in the United States can be put out of mind or avoided if you don't go to protests and avoid large parts of the internet. Life marches on.

In the early 2000s, Isaacson was in Bogotá working with security experts and human rights activists who were detailing the horrors unfolding in Colombia’s countryside. In between meetings, he would grab a meal at a cafe.

“I’m eating my sandwich, I’ve got another meeting coming up, I’m going to hear more horrible things, and I look up and I just see the beginning of this soap opera that's very popular in Colombia at the time, with this happy middle class family, eating together and dancing and hugging and you know, then they could go off and do their soap opera things,” Isaacson told me over the phone. “You realize that even in this horrible period for Colombia, for most of the country, this conflict was just something you saw on television. It doesn’t really impact their everyday lives.”

“Collapse,” he said, “is not evenly distributed…I’d say there’s a real danger that [America] is going to see sustained political violence.”

But Isaacson noted there are important differences between Colombia and the United States. In Colombia, the conflict happened mostly in the country and the different sides took and held territory. “In America, it will be more urban. It’s not going to be about controlling territory,” he said.  “A lot of it will be, like terrorism, an effort to display a show of force and make a statement. It’ll be more performative than what you’d see in Colombia where the guerillas really did intend to take over the country.”

Kilcullen thinks America has been in what he calls “pre-revolutionary conditions” for a while. “The COVID crisis caused a lot of people to become more militant than they were in the past,” he said. He pointed to the George Floyd protests, the more than 100 days of sustained direct action in Portland, the Kenosha shooting, the seeming execution of Michael Reinoehl, and the shooting of Garett Foster in Austin, Texas as just some of the stress points. “We're starting to get to the point where there's a bit of a critical mass building.”

THE PYRAMID OF POLITICAL UNREST

Kilcullen described political unrest using a pyramid. At the bottom of the pyramid are the masses, the great bulk of people. Above that are movements—according to Kilcullen, usually around 20 percent of the population—large and loosely aligned political groups that are overwhelmingly non-violent. Think, broadly, the Black Lives Matter movement or Trump supporters. A step up from movements are militants. This is a small subset, usually, 3 percent, of a movement willing to engage in violence.

“Militant just means willing to engage in violence. They’re not necessarily organized, they’re not necessarily carrying rifles, but they have pepper spray or baseball bats and they’re willing to fight each other,” Kilcullen said. “This isn’t new. We’ve been seeing Proud Boys and Antifa fighting each other continuously since before the 2016 election in Portland.”

According to Kilcullen, the step above militants are militias. “Militias are a subset of militants who are actually armed and organized,” he said. “But they’re still mostly defensive. You get smaller and smaller groups as you go up the pyramid.” He’s seen a growing movement called Area Code Militias, groups that organize to defend specific area codes. They even have a website where they organize in the open. Organizing for community defense in America is not illegal.

Kilcullen also pointed to the Not Fucking Around Coalltion (NFAC) as an example of militia. NFAC recently fielded 300 armed and uniformed black members in Stonemountain, Georgia. A month later, NFAC marched in Louisville, Kentucky and outnumbered 3 Percenters—a right wing militia. Both sides were heavily armed and three NFAC members were injured when another member accidentally discharged their weapon.

At the very top of the pyramid are the actual insurgents. “A militia is generally defensive,” Kilcullen said. “Then you get people that are willing to travel a long distance to fight somebody else or they’re willing to go into somebody else’s neighborhood and carry out an atrocity.”

Members of the Atomwaffen Division have killed several people. In February, the FBI arrested several members of the group as part of a national crackdown and uncovered evidence that they were planning mass shootings and bombings. Those who escaped the early round of federal prosecutions have reformed under a new name.

There’s also the Boogaloo Bois, a loose cadre of extremely online shitposters armed with assault rifles and Haiwaiian shirts. In September, the DOJ arrested two self-proclaimed members of the Boogaloo movement after the FBI set them up to donate money to Hamas. A Hamas spokesperson later denied there was a link between the organizations.

In Michigan, the FBI arrested 14 people, including members of a group called the Wolverine Watchmen, for allegedly plotting to kidnap Governor Gretchen Whitmer. The prosecution released videos of the group it said show the alleged conspirators conducting live fire training in preparation for the kidnap attempt. “If this whole thing starts to happen, I’m telling you what dude, I’m taking out as many of these mother fuckers as I can,” suspect Brandon Caserta said in one of the videos. “Every single one. Every single one.”

There’s also the Base, a group of neo-Nazi accelerationists who see America’s police forces as spread thin thanks to the protests. According to the Base, it’s a perfect time for a terrorist attack that could spread violence. The Base built its insurgency starting in 2018 and had picked antifascist, journalist, and government targets but was busted by the FBI in January 2020.

In Kilcullen’s pyramid, these groups sit at the top and are the real threat. Kilcullen was particularly worried about accelerationists.

“The bases are loaded and all the components are there. It really only takes a spark to set off a significant amount of violence and once you have that violence, it becomes self sustaining,” Kilcullen said. “If you and I see that, for sure the accelerationists do too. And their whole agenda is to set that spark. I worry that people that haven’t shown themselves yet, who aren’t doing street stuff, the underground cells, are planning a full on bombing, not a firework.”

AN ARMED POPULACE

Evans lives in Portland and has been covering the protests and violence there since it began more than 100 days ago. “I think it’s preparing everyone for the big one,” he said. “At some point, if this continues, you will have three large groups of armed people show up and begin firing at each other with live arounds and you’ll have multiple casualties.” Those three groups are, broadly, the left, the right, and law enforcement.

He said he’s worried about a scenario where there’s widespread violence and death at a protest. This might cause the groups involved to lose public support. Or, it might not. “Worst case scenario is that you develop a network of reprisals. That’s like The Troubles, that’s like fucking Syria.”

“Syria wasn’t just Assad and his army versus the people,” Evans said. “It was Assad and his paramilitaries. I’m much more worried about the United States winding up like Syria than about the United States winding up like Ireland.”

Kilcullen said that one thing that makes the American situation uniquely dangerous is the amount of weapons it has. “Something that’s not usual in other circumstances. You’ve got 100 million plus weapons in private hands…and about a five million spike in weapon purchases in the last six months and a nationwide ammo shortage,” he said.

Sales of guns, ammunition, and body armor are way up in the United States in 2020. We’ve had spikes in firearms sales in the past, they typically happen after a mass shooting as people panic-buy weapons they soon think might be illegal. This is different and it’s bigger. In the January after Obama’s re-election in 2012, an estimated 2 million guns were sold in America. The spike quickly dropped back.

In March 2020, Americans purchased an estimated 1.9 million guns. In April, the FBI processed 2.9 million background checks for guns. In June, it conducted 3.9 million background checks. Gun sales are so high that arms manufacturers literally can’t make ammunition fast enough to keep up with demand. Body armor sales are up as much as 600 percent for some manufacturers.

THE POLITICS OF FEAR

Trump isn’t helping. When asked to denounce white supremacists and reject conspiracy theories, Trump equivocates and either dances around the topic or gives what sounds like tacit endorsement.

Right wing paramilitary groups clashing with leftists while politicians egg them on is similar to the strategy of tension employed by Italy’s conservative Christian Democracy (DC) party during the Years of Lead from 1960s through the 1980s. “The strategy would involve trying to frighten the bulk of the population by saying, ‘We’re in a polarized society where the extreme left is very very powerful and may succeed, and if they do, society will fundamentally change and we need to be fearful of that,” Matt Clement, a senior Lecturer of criminology at the University of Winchester in the UK told me over the phone.

Clement and co-author Vincenzo Scalia published The Strategy of Tension: Understanding State Labeling Processes and Double-Binds in the March 2020 issue of the academic journal Critical Criminology. It describes Italy’s Years of Lead and how the Italian state exploited fear and paranoia to maintain power. “You had coup attempts that got so far, and then they were leaked so everybody knew about them in the press,” Clement explained. “The idea was that people would worry about, ‘if the left goes too far, clearly the right are ready to respond.’”

In a climate of polarization and paranoia, the truth became difficult to parse. “Most people would think, ‘I don’t care whose fault it is, I just don’t want it to happen.’ So the tension is the fear ramped up on either side, and then hopefully that will be enough to make people not vote for the communists and we can keep the DC in power.”

During those years in Italy, political cynicism among the population was de rigueur. “The political machinery of Italy looked broken,” Clement said. “There was a crisis of confidence in the ruling party and the left. The rush to violence was precisely because the conventional political options of either party were bad. As a result, people were on the streets and people were using violence on both sides.”

Clement sees the parallels between Italy then and America now and, like Kilcullen and Evans, he thinks much depends on the upcoming election. “If Trump lost and tried not to leave office, then clear that would lead to outrage and protests,” he said. “On the other hand if Trump loses, especially if he loses narrowly, you can imagine that many of his supporters would be very keen on the idea of actively demonstrating their beliefs…it’s ready made for further ruptures no matter what way the election goes.”

According to Kilcullen, the pandemic and social media as direct causes for the current climate of uncertainty and looming violence. Historical comparisons between Ireland in the 20th century and America in the 1960s and 70s are imperfect, though people have been bringing both up a lot lately. From 1971 to 1972, there were 2,500 bombings in the U.S. The explosions were ubiquitous and, in cities like NYC, a part of the background of city life.

But 2020 is different. “The difference is social media,” Kicullen said. “How many Americans knew there were that many bombings at the time? I’d say probably not many. What we have now, is every time there’s an incident it gets amplified and goes viral and the players become martyrs…when you have the amplification effects of social media, it takes fewer incidents than it did in the 1970s.”

“I don’t know how you pull back from the brink here,” he said. “At the end of the day, the least you’ve got right now is in the low tens of millions of people who’ve actively prepared to murder their countrymen and in many were looking forward to it. How does a Joe Biden electoral victory change that?”

Kilcullen wanted to stress that he could be very wrong about everything. Both he and Evans have spent their lives studying conflict and it has a way of affecting their point of view.

“I’ve spent 30 years getting pretty good at spotting [civil conflicts] when they’re starting,” Kilcullen said. “A colleague has joked that I’ve predicted eight out of the last two civil wars. I would take what I’m saying with a grain of salt.”