Is America in the Early Stages of Armed Insurgency?
David Kilcullen is one of the world’s leading authorities on insurgencies. For decades he has studied them. As an infantry soldier in the Australian army and an adviser to the U.S. Army, he’s fought against them. His latest scholarly work has focused on their role in urban conflicts.
So when Kilcullen says that America is in a state of “incipient insurgency,” it’s worth sitting up, taking notice, and trembling just a little.
The official definition of an insurgency is the “organized use of subversion and violence to seize, nullify, or challenge political control” of an area. An “incipient insurgency” might be happening when “inchoate actions by a range of groups”—followed by organizing, training, acquisition of resources (including arms), and the buildup of public support—lead to “increasingly frequent” incidents of violence, reflecting “improved organization and forethought.”
Kilcullen argues that this is what we’ve been seeing the past few months in the waves of provocations and street violence that have blown through American cities since the May 25 police killing of George Floyd. By and large, the protesters haven’t been at fault. It’s been the extremists—left and right—who have tagged alongside the protests and counterprotests, exploiting the disorder.
In some cases, the violence has been committed by “individual idiots”—as Kilcullen calls them—such as, most notably, Kyle Rittenhouse, the 17-year-old self-appointed vigilante who, after reading radical right-wing ravings online, drove from his home in Illinois to Kenosha, Wisconsin, armed with a semi-automatic rifle, and wound up shooting three people, killing two of them, in the wake of demonstrations over the police shooting of Jacob Blake.
The incidence of violence is rising. According to a new report by the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (which usually monitors violence in war-torn countries), 20 violent groups—left and right—have taken part in more than 100 protests related to the George Floyd killing. In June, there were 17 counterdemonstrations led by right-wing militant groups, one of which sparked violence. In July, there were 160 counterdemonstrations, with violence in 18.
Armed militias are nothing new in the United States. A decade ago, Kilcullen counted about 380 right-wing groups and 50 left-wing ones, many of them armed. In the early 1990s, the faceoff between the FBI and the Branch Davidians, outside Waco, Texas, left 80 people dead—and inspired Timothy McVeigh and his gang of extremists to blow up a federal building in Oklahoma City, killing 168 people. In the late 1960s and early ’70s, left-wing groups such as the Weather Underground set off bombs all over the country; police waged deadly shootouts with the Black Panthers in Oakland, California, and Chicago; and marchers for and against the Vietnam War—mainly students and hard-hat workers—clashed in violent street battles.
But except for the last set of clashes (which didn’t involve organized groups, much less insurgencies), those earlier incidents rarely corresponded with the divides between the nation’s political parties. This is one way in which the current conflicts are different—and, potentially, more dangerous.
Another difference and danger is the prevalence of cable TV networks and social media, which amplify and spread the shock waves. Incidents that in the past might have stayed local now quickly go viral, nationwide or worldwide, inspiring others to join in.