The growing number of deaths from America’s ongoing political violence, as armed demonstrators shoot each other on the fringes of street protests, naturally evokes comparison to civil wars past and present, as commentators and ordinary US citizens alike wonder how close they are to the abyss. One thing that becomes very clear is that talk of civil war, to Americans at least, evokes their great 19th century conflagration as the archetype: without massed ranks of uniformed volunteers fighting pitched battles over territory, they argue, can it really be a civil war?
From a British perspective, a more obvious parallel, though far from perfect, might be the 20th century Northern Ireland conflict. The images of rival militias parading around and facing off in America’s small towns are deeply resonant of the 1914 Home Rule Crisis, which brought the entire United Kingdom to the brink of civil war — a spectre averted only by the more spectacular disaster of World War I, which, for all its horrors, at least took place overseas.
The historian Dan Jackson’s excellent blog post on the Home Rule Crisis highlights the performative, processional aspects of these displays of popular support and armed might on Ireland’s city streets. And it is not difficult to see echoes in America’s armed standoffs, where the primary purpose seems not to intimidate the opposing side directly, but rather to place pressure on the state and the media through the barely-veiled threat of violent confrontation should their demands not be met.
The Irish analogy works well for the later phase of Ireland’s enduring conflict, too. Instead of serried ranks of disciplined soldiers facing each other on the battlefield, the Northern Ireland conflict, especially prior to the events of Bloody Sunday and the consequent sustained IRA insurgency against the British Army, looked closer to the troubles now developing on the other side of the Atlantic.
As highlighted by the powerful recent BBC series on the Troubles, the Northern Ireland conflict was entered into by as much by accident as design, with politicians stoking tensions that they soon were unable to control. In Northern Ireland, the early protests — explicitly inspired by the black American civil rights movement — soon devolved into rioting on one hand, and an excessive use of force by the state’s security forces on the other.
Tribalisation developed into both the formation of rival armed militias, and the collusion of the security forces, both perceived and real, with one faction against the other poisoned the political process. With dramatic exceptions, episodes of violence were largely localised, and in the background, ‘normal life’ continued much the same as usual, except everyone was more fearful and depressed.
It’s not a perfect analogy, of course, though as an example of the descent into bitter civil conflict in a liberal democracy, it might be a more useful parallel than the American Civil War framework so many commentators are trapped in. Of course, social media makes the events in the US something new entirely, a novel phase of conflict where every killer becomes a celebrity, every death a meme, and the primary battleground being fought over is the online narrative. Like Tolstoy’s families, civil conflicts are each unhappy in their own unique ways, and what’s developing in America now might well become the new and unhappy benchmark other troubled liberal democracies will anxiously measure themselves against.