James Waller

The Escalating Risk of Mass Violence

Air Date: January 11, 2022

Keene State Holocaust and Genocide Studies scholar Jim Waller discusses the rise of identity-driven violence in the United States.


HEFFNER: I’m Alexander Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. I’m delighted to welcome our guest today. He’s James Waller, Professor of Holocaust and Genocide Studies at Keene State College in New Hampshire, and he recently delivered a lecture sponsored by Indiana’s Institute for and on Anti-Semitism. And it got my attention from the outset. The title of the lecture was “The Escalating Risk of Mass Violence in the United States.” And you can visit the Institute for the Study of Contemporary Anti-Semitism at Indiana University at Indiana.edu. And I just want to give folks a preview of what the professor talked about. He talked about what he calls the escalating level of political violence in the United States. And he’s suggesting that it raises red flags that may be unusual or unprecedented in the history of our country. It’s a pleasure to host you today, Jim, thanks so much for your time.


WALLER: Thanks, Alexander, it’s good to be here with you.


HEFFNER: So as you conceived of this idea that there is an escalating risk of, or for mass violence in the United States. What is leading you to believe that that that is the case?


WALLER: Yeah, I think, Alexander, the briefing report that this talk was based on was something I did last November before the election, for the Stanley Center for Peace and Security, and basically what it stemmed from, as I had done a good amount of work on risk assessments for mass violence and mass atrocity around the world. And in 2016 I published a book entitled “Confronting Evil: Engaging Our Responsibility to Prevent Genocide” and in that book, I laid out four areas of risk. We look at related to governance, to conflict history, to economic conditions, and social fragmentation, and often I’ll think about and write about risk assessments in other parts of the world through the framework of that particular four-part model. And the Stanley Center simply asked me to do the same thing for the U.S. before the election. And again, to think about it far beyond just the previous four years of the Trump administration, but historically, where had the U.S. been with some of these issues and where might I see risks in the face of the upcoming, November 2020 election?

HEFFNER: And so that is a calculation as a scholar that you look at historically, I’m sure statisticians are evaluating, you know, levels of political capital and social intelligence and behavior. So what are some of those metrics or dynamics that you are assessing?


WALLER: Yeah, no, I appreciate it, Alexander, how you use the word calculation because it really is. We’re talking here about probabilities. Anytime we look at any country in the world and we asked the question, what is the risk for mass violence or political violence, we’re making statements about probability. So the four areas I looked at, one was governance. How inclusive has governance been? To what degree is governance free of corruption? outside influence, and so on. In terms of conflict history, we looked at questions related to memory, how we understood slavery, how we understood the Native American experience, genocidal experience early in our history. In terms of economic conditions, we looked at things like economic inequalities, diversity, and then finally social fragmentation I think was, was the big one because social fragmentation, is the opposite of social cohesion. In social fragmentation were concerned in situations where there are deep polarizing divisions, ethnic divisions, racial divisions, tribal divisions, economic divisions, and also political divisions.


So what I was looking at was, again, much more than just the four years of the previous administration, where had we been trending over the course of the most recent decades? And for instance, just to give you one example, in terms of governance, our distrust in governance right now is at a pretty much an all-time low for the American public. But that’s a trend that started in the 1970s. It wasn’t anything that just escalated out of nowhere. For 30 or 40 years, we’ve had an increasing sense of distrust about who is governance governing us, what the agendas are, and so on.


HEFFNER: When you say the seventies, do you attribute the beginning or the advent of that downfall, the declining trust, are you attributing it to Watergate specifically and the events around Watergate?


WALLER: That seems to be when public opinion polling certainly started to change in a different direction. Some of that would have been the cultural ethos of the late sixties, early seventies, but I think absolutely Watergate showed a side, an underbelly of government that for many people in the American public wasn’t something they were often exposed to in a time before 24/7 news channels. So that’s certainly when we started to see the downturn, for sure.


HEFFNER: I do wonder though how much of the decline can be measured alongside the continued favorable assessment of people’s own representative or Senator. Often at the local level, they will say, our fellow citizens will say, I do support and theoretically trust, my mayor, my council member, my county executive, and maybe even up to the level of U.S. Representative and Senator, but not cabinet secretaries or presidents. Now we know that there’s a strong negative partisanship involved in hyper-polarization today, but those kinds of dueling facts of decline of trust overall and I wonder if you polled or looked at surveys in the 1970s as that decline was starting, were people still so gung-ho, so cheery and positive about their own representative in their own zip code?


WALLER: Yeah, that’s a great question, Alexander. When I did the risk assessment, I was really looking at the federal government level and specifically presidential administrations. So I’m not sure at the local level how those were reflected. I think you’re right that for a good number of years locally there was greater trust among the politicians we had elected anew, but I think we’ve seen even over the past several years, some of that local trust eroding, certainly in the face of the pandemic as local politicians are making judgements about mandates or no mandates. I think we see some increasing tension there as well.


HEFFNER: So let me ask you about Federalism because it seems to be what has saved us in times of high toxicity. Now that wasn’t the case in the civil war. Federalism did not save us, but in the hyper-partisanship that exists today around public policy issues, whether it’s vaccination, mask wearing, or hot-button cultural topics that are age-old, there seems to be at least the salvation that we will be rescued by the fact that, you know, at the end of the day, we can be governed regionally or in each state. And each state does have its own governor. And that, you know, there can be theoretically, mobility, so that if you don’t approve of what’s going on in Texas or if you yourself want to have reproductive health and access to abortion, you move from Texas to another state. Now, where does that play out in your assessment of increasing violence? The idea of Federalism, you know, the protecting us from the factionalism and the potential violence connected to that factionalism?


WALLER: Yeah. The, when we looked at those issues of states’ rights and responsibilities, that really for us was collapsed in the social fragmentation, as we thought, as I wrote about the deep political divisions that exist in the U.S., those political divisions were very local. And what we see is, and this one was, unfortunately, this piece was written at the time of COVID. You also see the difficulty where states still have so many rights and responsibilities. You see the difficulty of mobilizing a response to something more global, like a pandemic in many of those situations. So for us, and I think as we thought about risk assessment at the state level, the concern was to what degree do the state responsibilities and rights exacerbate polarization, rather than try to ameliorate it to some degree.


HEFFNER: And where do we stand Professor? I mean, where, you know, you are a scholar of genocide. I mean, and I went on national television myself and in my capacity here as what aspires to be a truth-teller and said to the American people that the self-inflicted wound of pandemic deaths at a certain point was genocidal. And the denial of services, on the basis of political affiliation, which was purported, and seems to be historically accurate at this point that blue states and cities initially at least were denied the protective equipment, they were factored into who should get vaccinated first, and they were considered in that landscape under the prior administration. So you know, that might be an exaggeration or at least a rather bold statement to make. But we know that the policies of this past two years they have determined folks’ life and death. And what is genocide, if not you know, policies that are going to eliminate populations on the basis of skin color, on the basis of political party, or cultural identity. So, you know, how much of that is factored into your own conclusions about where we are today and where we’re going?


WALLER: Great question, Alexander. As you could guess, for someone who spends my professional life working in genocide studies, we’re very careful about how we use the word genocide, and we don’t want to overuse it. Sometimes we make the mistake of underusing it. But rather than focusing on the event of genocide, what I’d like to talk about and what the paper talks about, is the process leading up to that event. What are the processes of dehumanization? What are the plus processes of classification? What are the processes of deprivation of legal rights, of human rights, of civil rights? Those are the escalating steps that can lead us up to the verge of genocide. And I never argued in the paper that the U.S. was on the verge of genocide. What I argued was the steps in the process that lead us to that point. We have taken any of those steps and at its heart, and you’ve mentioned, you hit on this in your remarks, genocide is about identity. It’s about the destruction of identity, whether it’s cultural, racial, religious, political, it’s an identity destruction event. And to the degree that identity is used in ways that open opportunities for some, and close opportunities for others. That’s absolutely part of the process of genocide. It’s not just about identity. It’s about what are the opportunities that identity provides or does not provide. And your example of political identity, providing some opportunity for some and not opportunities for others, that ended up having life and death consequences, that fits exactly within what we talk about when we talk about genocide as process, rather than an event.


HEFFNER: Right. And to be fair, I think, modifying genocide by saying it’s a soft genocide is almost oxymoronical, but it still seems to be applicable, but you’re, correctly I think, identifying for our viewers the way to think about it as the preface to, the steps towards that kind of destruction of identity, that is what we understand undeniably manifestly as a genocide. But even the world’s most prominent deliberative bodies have not fully in any kind of definitive way said, this is genocide. This is not genocide. I mean, there’s still many debates about the specific character of genocide or what, you know, the scale that warrants that turn. So, you know, when we look at violence as the barometer of what indicates that genocide and destruction of human life and property, on the basis of identity, let’s look internally and see what violence there has been in this country.


So we know that there been a flurry of attacks on journalists over the last decade or so. There were attempts to send pipe bombs to political figures. You know, we understand this dating back to 9/11 when there were, you know, foreign domestic international organizations sending anthrax to journalists. And there was a foreign attack on civil society. And I know we talk about domestic insurgency. We look at those instances, we look at the mass shootings, specifically gun violence in multiple homicides, the Tree of Life Synagogue, the cases of you know, if, if you want to call them genocidal events or mass shooting events at synagogues, churches, in Texas. There was the, the massacre in Las Vegas, which I think remains the most violent in American history. And then we have the ongoing scourge of gun violence in our daily lives largely tied to zip code and poverty, and often along racial lines. So, I mean when we talk about violence, that’s where violence seems to be most predominant. There’s also domestic violence and that’s unfortunately still too large a category. We can’t ignore that. But in terms of violence that could be correlated with identity, I wanted you to expound on the instances of that violence in the United States over the last decade.


WALLER: Yeah. And I think that’s a very helpful way to go about thinking of it, because often the word genocide, it becomes weaponized, and it becomes overused. And by the time something is legally could be classified as a genocide, it’s very often too late to do anything about it. So many of us who work in the field focus more on what you’ve described as identity-based violence. Violence, unfortunately has a lot of different forms, domestic and otherwise. But identity-based violence as that, this is violence directed against you, not because of who you are as an individual. This violence doesn’t care about you as an individual. It only cares about you in terms of its direction, on the basis of your group identity, religious, political, political, cultural, linguistic, sexual orientation, racial, ethnic, tribal, whatever that group identity is. Identity-Based violence focuses on those examples, and you’ve listed several of them, where the violence is being done, not because we know you as an individual, but simply because you’re a person who carries this group identity. And many times Alexander, if you don’t the victim doesn’t even carry that group identity. I mean, I work often in Bosnia-Herzegovina, and I’ve talked to many people who are Muslims, who, I’m sorry, who are not Muslim, but for whom the perpetrator group typically serves, thought them to be Muslim, believe them to be Muslim, and they suffered the same consequences of identity-based violence, even though that wasn’t their background, that wasn’t their tradition. So unfortunately the identity matters in the minds of the perpetrator, whether it’s real or not. If the perpetrator perceives that as an identity, that to them is a threat. And this is to me where we get to January 6th and the insurrection. The violence there was based on the perceived threat to a group’s identity. That if this election goes forward, if this election results hold true, then that is a threat to my national identity, a threat in this case to my Christian identity. And when we see identities perceived in those threatening terms, I think that’s what puts us on the edge of that type of violence.


HEFFNER: It’s fair to say that that while there is the indisputable violence, and you could call a genocide against people of color, first slaves and then you know, black Americans, that in these proceeding decades, if we just flash back, as the civil rights movement endeavored to right those wrongs, we did not see either isolated or scattered instances of what we would call, or what most definitions would call genocide. You know, things steadily improved, even if there was a genocidal state in which black and brown people were treated that way and subjugated to second-class citizenship, or even the prospect of elimination or extermination in the eyes of the south and then the KKK. But what we’re talking about in this last decade is different from anything, right, that we saw in the proceeding half century. We saw instances of assassination attempts and assassinations of leaders, often peacemaking leaders like MLK and RFK and others. But we didn’t see the incidents like the ones we saw in synagogues and churches. In the case of our schools too, we can’t ignore Parkland and the massacre there, that’s another segment within gun violence of school shootings. The case of the Las Vegas gunman, which is the most egregious and worst in American history, hasn’t really been attributed to any identity. He shot people indiscriminately. But those kinds of events, in your mind, do they form the basis of some kind of patchwork here? At least the ones that can be attributed to malice and malice towards a group of people on the basis of faith or skin color, or even maybe an extension of that as students, and wanting to kill off a next generation, or maybe where the school is, and located, and what religions are predominant in that school system?


WALLER: Yeah. I think the, you know, the common denominator for me across many of those examples, you mentioned, as I said, previously as threat, that a shooter or shooters have determined that because of the school location, because of the venue, because of the identity, that this is a group that somehow poses a threat. And I think those are the ones we find most disconcerting as we think about risk issues. You’re going to have psychopathic lone-wolf shooters who are just shooting out of some deep sense of pathology without any idea of who the victims are and why they matter. But the situations where we have shootings where shooters have consciously identified a person or a group of people as a threat to their identity in some ways, and most likely today in the U.S. that means a threat to their racial identity, and racial privilege, or it means a threat to political identity and political privilege. Those, the increasing escalation of those types of incidents of violence are I think what we find most disconcerting in terms of risk assessment.


HEFFNER: Right. And combined with, with rhetoric that we talked about extensively on The Open Mind when Donald Trump was running for president, and you know, the first time, and as he presided over that office, I mean, a rhetoric that was dissimilar to a lot of the forebearers in that office again, irrespective of whether Trump purported to be conservative or a Republican, registered Republican president, a certain discourse that we had not really seen since the Civil War era. So my question to you, as we close here, Jim, is, when you talk about isolated instances of, or even a patchwork of bigoted violence, where do you draw the line there, you know, between the bigoted violence and the genocide? And are there case studies as a scholar of, of genocide where you see the warning signs in the way you saw them in other countries that you’ve studied?


WALLER: Yeah. I’m going to go to, you know, Alexander you perceptive of mentioning the issue of rhetoric. Certainly when I did the risk assessment, I focused on much of the political rhetoric that was coming from the Trump administration. But my concern in terms of risk is how the rhetoric makes its way into civic discourse at the level of you and I discussing. And it, to me has fundamentally changed in some very unhealthy ways, how we disagree with each other and the type of the type of public permission we have for those disagreements. And I’ll just give one concrete example. I was in Georgia this past weekend for a conference, driving back to the airport, a truck passes by me and has a huge flag out the backside that says F Biden. It’s a political disagreement to be sure, but the type of public permissiveness that’s okay to use that type of rhetoric in our disagreement. that is something relatively different, I think, in America today. And where I’ve seen that in other countries is you’ve seen the political rhetoric, not just reflect public conversation, but begin to shape public conversation in ways that clearly define who is us and who is them. And again, I’ll go back to a theme I’ve kept mentioning is threat, is not just defining who is us and who is them, but it’s rhetoric that defines them as the threat, whether it’s immigrants, whether it’s the, the political opposition, whether it’s a religious minority. When “them” is perceived as a threat I worry about when that discourse has reached the level of our coffee shops… and schools and town halls.


HEFFNER: It clearly has translated into denying folks service on the basis of partisan affiliation, or who they support. And it’s gone both ways over the course of the Trump administration, and now the Biden administration. Final question, in the 60 seconds we have left. When it does come to that idea of a bigoted violence and when in mass or a master accumulated becomes not just bigotry, but genocide, in your book, the UN may have some definition. NATO may have some definition, presidents’ past, and future may have some definition, but when do you see it as genocide, or when, you know, at least the term genocidal ought to characterize events?


WALLER: Right. We don’t, we, I don’t look at that as a numbers issue. People get caught up in numbers, for sure. I don’t think it’s a numbers issue. I think the issue is intent. When we have demonstrable intent, through word or action, for one group to intend to destroy another group in whole or in part, that’s when we’ve crossed that threshold into genocide. And again, I’m not interested in waiting for the legal proof of intent. If we’re seeing intent in speeches and rhetoric and discourse, in legislation, in action, that is the biggest red flag for us. Because that tells us that that intent, if not checked, could absolutely become a reality.


HEFFNER: James Waller, thank you so much for your insight today.


WALLER: Thank you. Great to be with you, Alexander.


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