From all the losses of the last year, with its countless ordeals and heartbreaks, let’s pick out one that may seem an abstraction. It’s the loss of a once-sturdy taboo. At some point between George Floyd’s killing on May 25 and the invasion of the US Capitol on January 6, our culture’s consensus against political violence crumbled. Before 2020, we lived in a society that (except for its left and right fringes) overwhelmingly agreed that using violence for political ends ought to be out of bounds. Now, we know that many of our fellow citizens are sort-of-OK with violence – at least when it’s their own side that is breaking windows and punching police officers.
Like any generalization, this statement needs lots of hedges. Most obviously, the now-broken taboo against political violence was always selectively applied; too often, it was a norm imposed on some but not others, as the history of Jim Crow shows. In addition, it’s not obvious why the violence of a riot should be condemned more harshly than other kinds of violence that, though less dramatic, are more deadly. The US prison system, for example, through its willful negligence in providing medical care, takes far more lives each year than any hotheaded protest; so does the abortion industry. And that is to leave to the side for the moment the matter of foreign wars or of Western complicity in China’s concentration camps for Uighurs.
We also don’t know if the suspension of the taboo against violence will prove to be temporary, just one more passing symptom of the feverish months of the pandemic. Perhaps the anti-violence consensus will reemerge once the order of ordinary life is more or less restored.
Perhaps. Yet even when we’ve made all the necessary hedges, something significant seems to have slipped.