America is a failing state

According to Harvard political scientist Robert Rotberg, states fail because of the purposeful actions of their leaders. In writing these words in an edited volume back in 2007, Rotberg was referencing countries like Zimbabwe under the disastrous rule of Robert Mugabe in the 1990s and 2000s, or later Syria under Bashar Assad.

State failure doesn’t just happen. Rotberg writes:

Nation-states do not stumble into failure. Human agency is always the proximate cause. … [Even the weakest states] teeter on the precipice of failure only if and when they cheat their citizens or give unfair preference to one set of elites over another or over ordinary citizens.

I’m reviewing these arguments as I sit in my office because I’m discussing them with my students tonight in the class I’m teaching on international conflict and security. Toward the end of his chapter Rotberg lays out the warning signs of the dynamic process that is state failure. It is a process that always begins with the decisions of those holding power at the top.

I am struck by how familiar these warning signs appear in the fraught political moment we are currently living. The signals are economic, political, and violent.

Economic signs of a state slipping into failure include the drying up of foreign investment, massive job losses, and falling per capita incomes. Critical infrastructure, public education, provision of health care, and entitlement programs are chronically underfunded, cracking under the strain of government neglect. Meanwhile, the rulers tend to benefit from the economic inequalities being inflicted upon their citizens. As the poor get poorer, the rulers and their cronies get richer.

Does that sound familiar?

Political signs of impending state failure are signaled when leaders and their associates subvert existing democratic norms, restrict political participation of all kinds, including voting rights, crack down on civil society, and override institutional checks and balances on their own power. Regimes going down this path curtail judicial independence, harass the media, and co-opt the security forces into a mailed fist answering to the personal whims, interests, and dictates of the ruler. Rotberg writes:

[R]ulers show more and more contempt for their own nationals; surround themselves with family, lineage, or ethnic allies; and greatly narrow the focus of concern and responsibility.

Does that sound familiar?

The last warning signal is also the most ominous. If the level of societal violence rises precipitously, the state is clearly failing.

Does that one sound familiar too?

So here’s a question: What can we do to arrest the trend? Because, as Rotberg argues, corrupt autocrats and their associates usually have little incentive to arrest the slide into state failure. They benefit from it.

How about this. If you can vote early, do so. If you are voting absentee, don’t trust it to the postal service. Take your ballot to your town clerk’s office or to an official ballot dropbox. And if you haven’t done those things, then do what I’m going to do.

Go to your local polling place next Tuesday, Nov. 3, and cast your vote for candidates that will work to turn this thing around. What can we do?

We can vote.

We once had a president

(Kronos Quartet featuring Meklit. Credit: Vimeo)

I have forgotten how long it’s been since we had a president who sought to heal the wounds of this country rather than pour salt into them. And then I listened to the beautiful, wrenching song The President Sang Amazing Grace.

It is the second track on the Kronos’s Quartet’s most recent album Long Time Passing: Kronos Quartet and Friends Celebrate Pete Seeger released on the Smithsonian Folkways label. The album features arrangements of 13 songs written or made famous by the legendary American folksinger Pete Seeger or his band the Weavers, along with newer compositions.

The vocalist on The President Sang Amazing Grace, Meklit, delivers a poignant, heartbreaking performance that frankly brought me to tears. The song is a reminder that at their best our political leaders can bring us together rather than divide us. They can inspire us to be better than we are rather than pander to the worst within us.

In short, this song reminds me that we can have a president again. Eight days and counting.

Are journalists at risk?

(Credit: Bloomberg)

Ever since the domestic terrorist plot to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer was disrupted by the FBI and State Police, one of the questions that I’ve repeatedly fielded from local journalists and reporters is whether they are at risk themselves from the kind of anti-government extremists behind the planned attack against Whitmer.

My immediate reaction was no, just off the top of my head. Such anti-government groups have an ideology that points toward a very different target list.

While anything is possible, I could not recall a single incident of an attack on a journalist or media establishment by any organized American far-right group, at least since the early 1980s, and only one or two by violent right-wing extremists since. But when in doubt, look at the data. In this case, that data comes from the Global Terrorism Database.

From 1980 through 2018 there have only been 44 terrorist attacks on journalists or the media in the United States. Only six of those attacks occurred since 2010.

Only a handful of attacks attributable to organizations or extremists on the political far right — including antisemitic, white supremacist, white nationalist, or anti-government — have been carried out in this nearly 40 year period. Here’s a quick list, in chronological order. Descriptions of the events are taken from the incident summaries presented in the Global Terrorism Database, augmented with additional research where helpful.

  • Dec. 19, 1981 — Jackson, Miss: This is the first of two attacks on the office of the Black newspaper the Jackson Advocate, one month apart. In this case shots were fired into the building, and firebombs thrown. While no specific group was identified as responsible, see the next entry.
  • Jan. 1, 1982 — Jackson, Miss: Two members of the Ku Klux Klan carry out a second attack on the offices of the Jackson Advocate, firing rifles through the windows. both perpetrators were arrested.
  • June 18, 1984 — Denver: Prominent and controversial Jewish talk-radio host Alan Berg is assassinated outside his home by members of The Order, a white supremacist terrorist group active between September 1983 and December 1984.
  • May 1, 1996 — Spokane Valley, Wash.: Two masked attackers detonate a pipe bomb at a suburban office of The Spokesman-Review newspaper. The bombing was apparently a diversion intended to occupy police while a nearby bank was robbed. The attackers left notes at both scenes signed “Phineas Priests.” The Phineas Priests were not a formal organization, but a self-description adopted by extremists rooted in the racist and antisemitic Christian Identity movement.
  • Dec. 15, 2016 — Dallas, Texas: Newsweek journalist Kurt Eichenwald, who has epilepsy, suffers a seizure triggered by a flashing GIF image embedded in an electronic message sent to him via Twitter. The original indictment in the case charged the perpetrator was motivated by anti-Jewish bias.
  • Oct. 29, 2018 — Atlanta, Ga.: A letter bomb addressed to the offices of CNN is discovered and defused at a mail sorting facility in Atlanta. This was one of 16 coordinated mail bomb attacks between Oct. 22 and Nov. 1, 2018 targeting critics of Pres. Donald Trump. When the suspect in the attacks, Cesar Sayoc, was arrested, his vehicle was covered with posters and stickers espousing right-wing propaganda. Sayoc is described in the GTD data as a “pro-Trump” extremist.

So that’s the list. Since 1980, we can only attribute six out of 44 terrorist attacks targeting journalists or media establishments on groups or individuals that we can place on the extremist far-right of the American political spectrum. None of those attacks are linked to the kind of anti-government far right groups accused of plotting to kidnap Michigan’s governor. They’ve mostly been the work of racists and antisemites.

Does this mean that journalists won’t potentially become targets in the future? No, we can’t say that. But we can say that, in general, these groups tend to have other targets in their crosshairs.

Wolverine Watchmen: Militia or terrorists?

Ten of 13 suspects accused of plotting to kidnap the governor of Michigan. (Credit: Detroit Free Press)

Let’s cut to the chase. The group of 13 men arrested last week on federal and state charges of plotting the kidnapping and likely murder of Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, are members of or affiliated with, armed militias. Like the ones I’ve written about frequently in this space.

What they were planning were acts of terrorism.

So what do we call them, militia members or terrorists? The initial reporting accurately characterized them as militia members. The internet was quick to pounce:

Gov. Whitmer added her own voice to the debate.

News outlets were soon to follow.

But there’s a problem with this simplistic trading of one term for another. The two — militia and terrorist — are not mutually exclusive. When both terms apply we have to use both terms. JJ McNabb, of Georgetown University’s Program on Extremism explains why:

Oh good grief. “Militia” is just a useful indicator of what flavor the terrorist group is.

The militia movement in the United States is a particular slice of the antigovernment far right, a wide-ranging category of groups both armed and unarmed. In emulation of legitimate military forces, militias, even small ones, tend to be organized hierarchically, with command roles and task specialization. They equip themselves with easily acquired military-style weapons and tactical equipment. They recruit. They train in marksmanship, small-unit combat tactics, reconnaissance, operational security, field medicine, and so on.

According to militia expert Amy Cooter, of Vanderbilt University, militia groups tend to fall into two broad categories:

Traditionally, researchers have categorized militias as one of two general types: “constitutionalists,” who are largely law-abiding and make up the majority of the movement, and “millenarians,” who are more prone to conspiracy theories and violent action. 

More recently, internal divisions have occurred in both these groups around whether they support police, or whether they call for a widespread uprising against government tyranny.

The Southern Poverty Law Center identifies nine such armed antigovernment militias active in Michigan as of last year, and fully 181 nationwide. The group plotting the attack on Whitmer, calling themselves Wolverine Watchmen, doesn’t appear on the SPLC’s list, however, according to media reports, the alleged ringleader of the plot, Adam Fox, had been expelled from another, more established militia, the Michigan Home Guard. Apparently they found him too extreme for their own tastes.

The Wolverine Watchmen, Cooter suggests, are likely to be a recent splinter from a larger and more well-established group, the Michigan Liberty Militia, which took a prominent role in the armed anti-lockdown protests at the Michigan State Capitol in the spring and early summer.

So what flavor of terrorists are these guys? Their affiliation with the militia movement tells us that they are likely motivated by belief in a variety of antigovernment conspiracy theories and fears of state oppression, especially around gun and property rights. They see themselves as a bulwark protecting their fellow citizens from the heavy hand of state repression or tyranny. Some organize with the expectation that they will have to confront impending government violence. Others believe they are preparing for a looming revolution and renewed civil war.

If you accept the evidence presented by the FBI and Michigan State Police, the Whitmer plotters were the later kind of militia, with a twist. They appear to believe that they could, by going on the offensive, bring about the war they’ve long expected. And here is where they cross the line into terrorism.

According to the FBI affidavit supporting charges against Fox and five others, in a phone conversation recorded in July by a confidential informant, Fox, according to the FBI, discussed the need for government to collapse because in his eyes it has become so tyrannical:

In all honesty right now … I just wanna make the world glow, dude. I’m not even fuckin’ kidding. I just wanna make it all glow dude. I don’t fuckin’ care anymore, I’m just so sick of it. That’s what it’s gonna take for us to take it back, we’re just gonna have to everything’s gonna have to be annihilated man. We’re gonna topple it all dude.

A month later, while members of the group were engaging in a reconnaissance operation to scout out the location of the planned kidnapping, an informant captured another conversation on audio. Here Fox makes the promise of violence against not just Whitmer, but other agents of the state, like police, explicit:

We ain’t gonna let ’em burn our fuckin’ state down. I don’t give a fuck if there’s only 20 or 30 of us, dude, we’ll go out there and use deadly force.

And Fox, in talking to his comrades, clearly hopes that their efforts will inspire other militia groups around the country to follow their lead:

I can see several states takin’ their fuckin’ tyrants. Everybody takes their tyrants.

The group had also come to the realization that further participation in nonviolent politics would be both pointless, and could also endanger their planned attack. In an encrypted group chat, Fox asks the group what they thought of an invitation from another militia group to participate in an armed protest at the State Capitol in Lansing.

[Ty] GARBIN replied, “I would highly advise minimizing any communication with him. Also there needs to be zero and I mean zero public interaction if we want to continue with our plans.” [Brandon] CASERTA replied, “When the time comes there will be no need to try and strike fear through presence. The fear will be manifested with bullets.”

So where are we? The 13 men arrested and charged last week are part of the antigovernment militia movement who, according to the FBI and the Michigan State Police, plotted a series of terrorist attacks against elected officials and law enforcement officers intended to trigger an armed rebellion against the United States. In this they are a throwback to an earlier Michigan militia group, the Hutaree, who in 2010 plotted to kill police officers in order to touch off a larger war with and uprising against the US government.

I’ve written at some length before about the definition of terrorism. To summarize, terrorism is the deliberate, politically, socially, or religiously motivated use or threat of violence, usually intended to influence an audience beyond the immediate target through the creation and exploitation of fear.

Like the Hutaree before them, the Wolverine Watchmen tick all the boxes. Their plans were deliberate and premeditated. They were motivated by a political objective. They intended to carry out acts of violence in pursuit of their goals. They hoped to inspire others to carry out further attacks. They hoped to strike fear.

That makes them terrorists. And militia. Both labels are accurate, and used together paint a more accurate picture of who they are and what they hoped to accomplish then using either label alone.