What do we mean by ‘violence’?

What do we mean by ‘violence’?

“The man … fell dead by my rifle. I felt bad at first when I saw what I had done, but it soon passed off, and as I had done my duty and was not the aggressor, I was soon able to fire again and again.”

 —Union solder firing into a pro-secession Baltimore mob, 1861[1]

Richard Hofstadter offered several definitions of violence. “Acts of violence,” he wrote, “are those which kill or injure persons or animals or do significant damage to property.”[2] This broad definition includes storms and other natural events not perpetrated by humans. Winnowing out acts of nature still leaves us with dog bites, bee stings, and dismantling by sharks. All of which constitute acts of violence.

We are concerned, however, with violence employed to prevent “normal free action or movement of other persons,”[3] especially as a means of regimenting the conditions of daily life in a community or region. Once violence has taken root in a community, it becomes less necessary to resort to it as frequently as one might suppose.[4] The threat of violence is often every bit as effective as actual violence itself. We sometimes refer to this latter as the use of force, that is, threats of violence designed to influence or dissuade. Force depends on the degree to which citizens believe they risk bodily harm if they transgress established norms.

Violence can also be psychological rather than overtly physical. Indeed, the psychological damage incurred as a result of violence or the threat of violence may be far more consequential than, say a broken arm, a bruised face, or possibly an injury requiring hospitalization. Likewise, although violent actions can be either volitional or accidental, we’re concerned primarily with intentional acts of violence rather than incidents such as accidentally shooting your hunting partner in the face.

The most important thing is this: force or violence may take place in many contexts. When it comes to understanding the true nature and impact of violence, context is everything. This has led to some situations in the past that may surprise us today. Keeping in mind the definition of violence as acts that kill or injure, it sounds strange today that for centuries, acts by government or authority, no matter at what level, were not considered acts of violence. Violence was defined as illegal or deviant behavior. State violence in the form of execution, even involving human torture and sacrifice, police action or war, was not. Indeed, human sacrifice was held to be patriotic or religious in nature. Similarly, dueling, rough-and-tumble fighting, and forms of family violence, such as spousal abuse or corporal punishment, did not fall into the category of violent behavior.[5]

Difficult to believe? Contemporaries considered it society’s prerogative to maintain discipline, especially of women, children, and contrarians. As a way to resolve this ridiculous hide-and-seek with reality, the sociologists Peter Iadicola and Anson Shupe sorted violence into three linked and overlapping categories.

1.)    Interpersonal violence, violence between people including anything from rape to murder to a rumble in a bowling alley parking lot.

2.)    Institutional violence, most typically religious violence, anything from terrorism to forced conversion, to cult ritual; and government repression in its myriad forms. It also includes violence within the family structure, often encouraged by religious authorities.

3.)    Structural violence. Iadicola and Shupe explain this as violence intended to establish or maintain hierarchies within society. In our history this has most commonly taken the form of the violent repression of Americans of African decent. But it has included religious and nativist violence as well. In other countries it also includes such gruesome items as female genital mutilation especially when intended to maintain male domination of family and society.[6]

These categories expand the definition of violence and offer a clearer way to understand the effects of violence on society. Violence can occur anywhere, at any time; be committed by anyone regardless of social, political, education, or economic status; and be directed against practically anyone or anything. Thus, the following definition from Iadicola and Shupe: “Voluntary actions or social arrangements that injure human well-being regardless of (1) the intent of the actor, (2) whether it is recognized as violence by any of the actors involved, (3) whether it is defined as legitimate or illegitimate, or (4) whether it is justified or unjustified.”[7]

Notice that this definition recognizes that some violence may be legal and justified.  Most people would agree that war and law enforcement action are two such categories. Although it is all too tempting to argue that although some forms of violence may be legal, they are not justified, the laws generally reflect the will of the people at a given era. Eras end, social ethics change, laws reflect this. However, at no point should our society—any society—hold to a flexible standard of illegal, albeit, justified violence. As you will see, that has been America’s big problem, and in my opinion, the sort of self-justified violence that lies at the heart of American culture. An example from popular culture might make this point clear. In John Grisham’s novel, A Time to Kill, white thugs rape a young black girl. The girl’s father takes his revenge against the perpetrators and is tried for their murder. His attorney argues that the murders were justified and ought to be overlooked. He makes a special plea to the jury to imagine that the victim had been young white girl. Doubtful the father would have even been arrested, let alone put on trial for first-degree murder. The jury agrees and sets the man free. This vigilante justice encourages the aggrieved to take matters in their own hands despite the law. Whites have long used this sort of perverted logic to kill blacks for real or imagined crimes against whites. It is an unfortunate American tradition. Whether it is legal under law, illegal, or extralegal; justified or unjustified, the main concern in our violent society is its frequency.

 Categories of Violence

We can also look at violence through the action itself; where three types of human violence emerge: war, criminal, and social. Overlapping to be sure, but distinct nonetheless.


“Americans love to fight. All real Americans love the sting of battle.”

   —General George S. Patton

 War can be anything from a melee to a missile strike, generally between two sovereign nations. In its two and a third centuries, the United States has been at war almost 100 years, well over one third of its existence. “Americans think of themselves as peace-loving,” asserts historian George Herring, “but few have had as much experience with war as the United States.” From the Revolution on, “each generation has had its war.” Far more telling, Herring writes that “armed conflict has helped forge the bonds of nationhood, nurtured national pride, and fostered myths about the nation’s singular virtue and indomitableness.”[8] Nothing unusual as far as powerful nations go. Until, that is, one combines it with peacetime mayhem, which in my view is far more central. Still, the list of violent conflagrations from colonial times to this very day is long.

Colonial Insurrections and Wars      

            Ingle’s Rebellion (1645 – 1646): Puritans and Catholics warring in England spread to colonial Maryland. Puritans under Richard Ingle who invaded and drove out the Roman Catholic proprietor. Calvert re-acquired control with help from Virginia.

            Battle of the Severn (1655): With Puritans regained power, religious strife again flared in Maryland when Catholic Proprietor Lord Baltimore attempted to re-take control of his colony from the Puritans, 150 of his men attacked Providence (later Annapolis). They lost. The leaders of the attack were captured and executed. Maryland remained under Protestant control until Oliver Cromwell, trying to mend fences, returned it to Baltimore on the condition of no reprisals.

            Fendall’s First Rebellion (1660): Last serious and unsuccessful threat to Catholic control of Maryland, dismissed by the current Lord Baltimore as a ‘pygmie rebellion.”

            New Jersey quitrent rebellion (1672): Settler’s refused to pay rent on their land, claiming they obtained the land from the Indians, not the crown. Rose up in brief rebellion and attempted to set up their own colonial government. When it failed they resumed quietly tilling their fields and neglecting to pay their fees.

            King Phillips War, Metacom’s Rebellion (1675 – 1676):  Metacom (aka, Metacomet, King Philip) led the Wampanoag, Nipmuck, Pocumtuck, and Narragansett tribes in a last ditch effort to drive out the English. Metacom was captured and beheaded, many of his people sold into slavery. No more Indian trouble for Puritan New England.

Davyes-Pate uprising in Maryland (1676): a minor, short-lived insurrection about as violent as the Whiskey Rebellion, yet to occur.

            Bacon’s Rebellion (1676 – 1677): Power struggle between rural western Virginia and settled east coast. Bacon overthrew the governor but died of dysentery before the governor got his revenge.

            Culpepper’s Rebellion (1677 – 1678): John Culpepper led a failed uprising against new taxes imposed under the Navigation Acts in then Carolina

            Second Fendall Rebellion (1680 – 1681): Maryland’s proprietary governor just can’t get any respect from his charges.

            Gove’s Insurrection (1682 – 1683): Edward Gove led New Hampshire townsmen against the royal governor. Rebellion ended when Gove captured and jailed in England.

            Essex County uprising Massachusetts (1687): another bloodless coup attempt.

            Ouster of North Carolina Governor Seth Sobel (1689) for corruption. Original charter re-imposed cutting back on local autonomy, paving the way for Cary’s Rebellion.

            Leisler’s Rebellion (1689): Jacob Leisler drove out the unpopular colonial governor of New York (was there any other kind?) until the crown came to his rescue. Leisler was executed.

            Overthrow of Governor of Massachusetts (1689): Royal governor Sir Edmund Andros ruled neither wisely nor long.

            Coode’s Rebellion (1689): Marylanders at it again. The Protestant Association led by John Coode overthrew the Catholics.

            Overthrow of South Carolina Governor John Colleton (1690): Get the pattern here? British North American colonials didn’t like to be ruled by anyone even a short distance away. This budding localism will become the major factor in American violence.

            King William’s War (1689 – 1697): The first North American conflict in a hundred years’ worth of wars for empire between the British and French. Perhaps this was the real First World War.

            Uprising in New Jersey (1699): failed attempt to overthrow governor Andrew Hamilton.

            Cary’s Rebellion in North Carolina (1709 – 1711): Quaker Governor Thomas Cary refused to accede to newly appointed Anglican Governor, Edward Hyde; nasty fighting ensued. Hyde prevailed with the help of Virginia governor. Cary fled, jailed a year in England before returning to NC to spend the remainder of his life in a friendlier persuasion.

             Queen Anne’s War (1702 – 1713): The North American version of the War of Spanish Succession in Europe. An attempt by England to control the Spanish throne resulted in another of many border wars between England and France in North America. French and Indian soldiers attacked Deerfield, Massachusetts, on February 29, 1704, killing 56 including 9 women and 25 children. This was but one relative minor skirmish and was typical of the continual warfare that made for rough going in the backcountry.

            Ouster of colonial South Carolina proprietor (1719): Out with the proprietor. The locals took it from there, thank you very much.

            King George’s War (1744 – 1748): This time the British and French were fighting over the Austrian throne. Their colonists in North America were part of the prize. One way or another, colonists would end up speaking English, French, or possibly Spanish, if they survived long enough.

            French and Indian War (1754 – 1763): The culminating conflict between Britain and France in North America. British won and immediately sank into a violent struggle with their colonists that would lead to the American Revolution.

            Hambricht’s march on the government in Philadelphia (1755): came to naught.[9]

            South Carolina Regulators (1760 – 1769):  Fighting with the Cherokee led to general destabilization of the Carolina backcountry. Colonists took matters in their own hands; got out of control (big surprise) and led to formation of a counter-vigilante group that became known as the Moderators.

            Paxton Boys (1764): Western vigilantes slaughtered peaceful Susquehannock, then, still seething with anger, marched on Philadelphia. Ben Franklin met them at Germantown and offered to present their grievances to the colonial government if they dispersed and ceased their threats to run the government out of the City of Brotherly Love.

            Indian Wars (1607 – 1890): “… the longest and most remorseless war in American history was the one between whites and Indians that began in tidewater Virginia in 1607 and continued with intermittent truces, for nearly 300 years down to the final event, the massacre of the Sioux by U.S. troops at Wounded Knee, South Dakota, in 1890.”[10]

Nationalist/International Wars

            Lord Dunmore’s War (1774): Colonial Virginia defeated the Shawnee and Mingo nations over the land south of the Ohio River, (present-day) West Virginia. By treaty the Virginians had rights to the land but these native peoples insisted upon maintaining their hunting privileges. Inevitably, that led to conflict with the settlers, who were defeated at the Battle of Point Pleasant. Even though led by settlers, the war resulted from years of British neglect of the backcountry, especially over settlers’ demands for Indian removal. For backcountry folk the American Revolution began here.

            American Revolution: 1776 (the Declaration of Independence) –1781: The great patriotic war began with widespread rioting, murder, and civil disobedience on the coast and extermination of the Indians in the interior.

            France: 1798–1800 (undeclared naval war): French harassment of American naval and merchant ships on the high seas led to a war that neither side wanted.

            Barbary Wars: 1801–1805: President Jefferson dispatched the fledgling U.S. Navy to end harassment of American merchant vessels.

            The War of 1812: 1811 (Battle of the Thames) – 1814: “A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the People to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.” Not especially well regulated, but well enough armed, these state militias disgraced themselves in this so-called Second War of Independence. Fortunately, as with the first war of independence, Americans benefited from British over-extension.

            Red Stick War (1813 – 1814): What began as a conflict between Creeks over whether to follow tradition or white ways resulted in the Creeks ceding half of Alabama and parts of Georgia to the U.S., twenty-three million acres in total.

            First Seminole War: (1817 – 1818): American slave owners chased their escaped enslaved into northern Florida, which was still Spanish territory. Aided by U.S. forces under Andrew Jackson, they fought a series of one-sided battles with the Seminoles and their African-American allies. A year later Florida became part of the United States.

            Second Seminole War (1835 – 42): Seminoles under Osceola refused to abandon their reservation and locate west of the Mississippi. As many as 2000 American soldiers KIA and $30-40 million dollars spent in a vicious guerrilla war.[11]

            Third Seminole War (1855 – 1858): The U.S. tracked down the last of the Seminoles, many hiding in the Everglades, finally paying the last of them to leave.

            The Black Hawk War (1832): Ma-ka-tai-me-she-kia-kiak (aka Black Hawk) fought to hold onto historical lands in what was becoming Illinois. Even with initial success, he succumbed to overwhelming odd, losing between 442 and 592 people to the Americans’ 70.  Once captured, Black Hawk was paraded through towns on the East Coast like the prized trophy from a big game hunt. Even Andrew Jackson, no stranger to killing Indians, thought it was a “disgraceful affair.”

            Mexican War (1846 – 1848):  The United States wanted the top third of Mexico and picked a fight to get it.

            The Civil War (1861 – 1865): America’s greatest tragedy, resolving an issue by violence that the Founders were unable to resolve by negotiation. More dead Americans than all our other wars combined, 750,000.[12]

            The Plains Wars: (1864 [Sand Creek Massacre] – 1890 [Wounded Knee]): The Native peoples were in the way of a muscular and quarrelsome people. Resistance was futile, assimilation unsuccessful, and the land reserved through treaty and contract impoverished.  Four hundred thousand Indians died in about forty years, their lands reduced by three-fifths.

            The Spanish-American War (1898): U.S. wanted hegemony in the Western Hemisphere and colonies in the Pacific to provide access to China. Defeating Spain was the path to both.

            World War I (1917 – 1918): A powerhouse global economy forced a reluctant nation to become a player in a way never envisioned.

            World War II (1941 – 1945): A deep bond with Western Europe, a Wilsonian sense of right and wrong, a foolish Japanese gambit, and a German megalomaniac led America to meet its destiny.

            The Cold War (1945 – 1991): Power and prowess have consequences. Once realized, America’s Manifest Destiny made it the Indispensable (and deeply ambivalent) Nation.[13]

            Korean Conflict (1950 – 1953): One of several theater wars in the global competition between capitalism and communism, freedom and totalitarianism, and godliness and atheism.

            Vietnam (1965 – 1973): Hubris and responsibility, and our leaders knew victory was nearly impossible.

            Grenada (1983): Diversion from a real defeat at the hands of terrorists in Beirut, Lebanon, disguised as part of a campaign to end communist expansion in the Western Hemisphere.

            Panama (1990): A police action in the “American Lake.” TR would have heartily approved.

            The Gulf War (1991 – 1992): President George H. W. Bush declared Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait “would not stand,” and it didn’t. The question remained where would America stand in the Middle East and for what?

            Kosovo (1995): How to fight a war to stop genocide and promote stability without using ground troops. All the KIA were on the other side.

            Afghanistan (2001 – present): Brave New World begets brave new enemies who continued the global reaction to colonialism assigning America the role of the new chief bad guy.    

            The Iraq War (2003 – 2011; 2014 – present): “I am saddened that it is politically inconvenient to acknowledge what everyone knows: the Iraq war is largely about oil.”[14]

During the 20th century the U.S. military intervened in Latin America twenty-eight times—often under cloudy circumstances. In 1912, the military invaded Honduras in the name of political and economic stability, really to secure the position of the United Fruit Company as economic overlords. In other countries, the military acted as strikebreakers. In the case of Guatemala in 1954, the U.S. military overthrew the first democratically elected president on the convenient charge that Jacobo Árbenz was a communist­—and, without saying it, to ensure continued American control of the banana crop.[15] 

With a record like this, it should come as no surprise that, “America has always had a war culture;”[16] steeped in the fable of war. Our early heroes were men such as the “Swamp Fox,” South Carolina guerilla warrior Francis Marion, and George Washington—who once told his brother he found “something charming to the sound of bullets.” The Father of our Nation came to believe he could not be killed in battle. Daniel Boone, Davy Crockett, Buffalo Bill Cody, all real men (with burnished reputations), George Armstrong Custer, Colonel Theodore Roosevelt, who staged his charge up San Juan Hill in Cuba after the battle and had it filmed, and George Patton. These are some of our best known warriors, and national heroes.[17]

Not so famous a warrior was Secretary of State Henry Kissinger who once compared himself to the cowboy gunmen of fact and fable, though mostly the latter, “entering the village or city alone on his horse … He acts, that’s all: aiming at the right spot at the right time. A Wild West tale, if you like.” And we do like. The mythic West gave us the gunslinger and the social bandit as folk hero, the domestic counterparts of our military warriors.[18]


Violent Crime (and punishment)                     

“The essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic and a killer.”

— D. H. Lawrence

In their 1997 study Franklin E. Zimring and Gordon Hawkins argued that crime occurred in America at about the same rate as other western nations. Americans, they said, were no more prone to crime than most western democracies. In some cases, the rates were even lower. London, for example, had a higher crime rate than New York City. However—and this was their point—the Big Apple had a death rate from crime eleven times higher. That whopping difference tells the entire story. America may not be more prone to crime than other western democracies, but it is far more prone to lethal violence. “This penchant for violence,” they concluded, “cannot be a natural result of high volume of either crime or criminals. If it were other developed nations would share our higher rate of violence. The propensity toward life threatening violence varies independently of crime rates. That is why violence is not a crime problem.”[19]

In December 1969 the National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence chaired by Milton Eisenhower concluded that, “The United States is the clear leader among modern, stable democratic nations in its rates of homicide, assault, rape, and robbery, and it is at least among the highest incidence of group violence and assassination ... it is disfiguring our society—making fortresses of portions of our cities and dividing our people into armed groups.”[20] Fortunately, this turned out to be somewhat exaggerated.

Still, by 1969, as the 60s were crashing, the rate of violent crime had risen dramatically from its 1960 rate to 328.7 crimes per 100,000 people. The FBI's uniform crime report for 1991 put it at 758.1 per 100,000 people, and it didn’t stop there. In 1960, America had 666 victims of violent crime (excluding murder) each day. By 1991, the daily number had risen to 5,213 (1,903,475 that year) and then took off, hitting 46,737 (17,059,005 total) in 1994. At long last, after 2012 it settled back into the 1991 range. By 2014 the rate had fallen dramatically to 375.7 per 100,000. That’s down by over half, to about the same level of 1970, but still markedly higher than 1960.[21] Michelle Ye Hee-Lee of The Washington Post put it this way: “…Homicides and overall violent crime, in both raw numbers and rates per population, have been on a decades-long decline in major cities.”[22]In the violent 1990s the Rodney King riot, right-wing extremism that culminated in the Oklahoma City terrorist bombing, and criminal violence as commonplace as sandlot sports left us grasping for explanations. Americans hoped then as they hope now that it was an aberration. Renewed racial conflict in the form of police brutality, revolutionary threats from the right, and a modest bump in the crime rate threatens to bring us face to face with our recent past.[23]­­

Most Americans resent comparisons with Western Europe unless the U.S. comes out on top. Pity that mindset because the facts are hard to ignore. Violence in Europe began its long steady decline well before colonization and continued afterwards—extraordinarily bloody wars notwithstanding. Over the centuries homicide rates in Western Europe fell from around ninety per 100,000 to less than two per 100,000 today. A comparison of 20th century England and the United States shows England hovering at one homicide per 100,000 while the United States progressed from around seven to ten per 100,000 in the 1980s, then back to seven. The murder rate may be down significantly, but it’s still ludicrously high. Even with its striking decline since the 1990s, the United States continues to have far more homicides than Western Europe.[24]

The United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime Report on murder rates showed Honduras, Venezuela, El Salvador and the U.S. Virgin Islands with the highest murder rates. As late as 2016 El Salvador moved into first place. The UN study placed the United States at 107th. This doesn’t sound bad until you replace rates with real numbers: The U.S. ranks 10th.[25]  Many other nations are rife with violence of one kind or another, but not the western, Christian democracies with which we compare ourselves. America remains an outlier among advanced nations, albeit a slightly less bloody outlier than in previous generations.

Possibly as many as 90% of all murders are committed out of a sense of injustice: an insult, a taunt, a rivalry, a shady business deal, a cheating spouse. Far fewer happen during the execution of another crime, such as burglary.[26] If such statistics hold, most murders contain elements of self-help justice, that is, people taking the law into their own hands, and thereby might be considered a kissing cousin of vigilantism, though murderers lack the vigilante’s air of smug self-righteousness.


Violence and Law Enforcement

“The police had before them a burly man, a Polish-American, strongly suspected of beating another man to within an inch of his life. The rubber hoses were getting the police exactly nowhere. So they called in a dentist, a ‘police buff,’ who ’carefully selected an old dull drilling burr and began slowly drilling into the pulp chamber of a lower rear molar in the region of the nerve.’ The technique did the trick, the accused began to sing.”

 —New York City Police giving a suspect the “Third Degree,” 1920s[27]


Republics especially require decency, order, justice, and respect for the law. These sometimes require the coercive power of the state, if for no other reason than to discourage self-help justice. When the virtue of the people is lacking, the police have the legal authority to use coercive violence. “Law furnishes the guidelines for social conduct and legitimizes the use of force to ensure it.”[28] In some extreme cases, as a matter of societal protection, the state imposes the law’s ultimate sanction: the death penalty. No matter how necessary, no matter how legally sanctioned, from prodding with a nightstick to capital punishment, it is all violence. Still, state-sanctioned violence, if it works correctly, will reduce criminal violence. Judiciously applied, like war, it is necessary and proper.[29]

If law enforcement is lax, overzealous or illegal, it becomes part of the problem. Worse, it implicitly justifies illegal actions by citizens.  When law enforcement crosses the line, it both reflects society’s violent ethos and makes it worse. As the Commission noted, “Police lawlessness, degrading prison conditions … damage the goal of an orderly society by making the law seem unworthy of obedience.”[30] In July 2014, Eric Garner, an African American male was choked to death in New York City for selling loose cigarettes. In August 2014, a white police officer shot and killed Michael Brown, an African American teen in Missouri. In April 2015, Freddie Gray, an African American male also died after a “rough ride” in police custody in Baltimore, Maryland. All officers involved were acquitted. A Washington Post examination of fatal shootings by police in 2015 turned up 990, “more than twice the annual average recorded by the FBI.”[31]

Even if technically legal (if perhaps in many cases overzealous), these incidents of police violence—police brutality, as it used to be called—summon the long history of state-sanctioned violence against minorities, African Americans in particular. Whites tend to view these cases as frustrated cops losing it while Blacks see them as part of an ongoing history of racial oppression. Much more about this in the pages ahead. For now this New York Times summary is worth consideration.[32] The Videos That Are Putting Race and Policing Into Sharp Relief.  In the end, such heedlessness by police results in citizen contempt for the law and encourages extra-legal violence. Latter-day self-help justice was most wantonly demonstrated in the July 2016 mass murder of five Dallas cops and three cops in Baton Rouge in hate-filled rampages of racial revenge.[33]


Social or Group Violence

       “Groups tend to be more immoral than individuals.”

—Reinhold Niebuhr

The great wave of violence of the 1960s and 1970s and into the 1980s gave way to a dramatic decline in the 1990s that continues to this day, despite the mass shootings and acts of terrorism, and the pervasive number of armed groups whose rhetoric strongly suggest the potential for terrorism. But these latter constitute more than simple street crime; these are incidents of social violence and civil disorder, that is violence involving groups of people and/or has a pronounced effect on society, such as a political assassination. America’s high rates of violent crime suggest there are also other factors at work, factors sitting squarely in our past.

Even considering violent crime, the form of violence most influential to our culture is social violence. It goes by many names including collective violence, group violence, mobbing, anomic violence, and domestic violence (although this latter has come to mean intra-family violence). All are synonymous with civil disorder at its most clamorous. Since colonial times it has often been more commonplace than individual criminal violence and far more significant. Of the three types of violent behavior, collective violence is least well known and barely acknowledged, at least as a category. Yet it is the most essential aspect of our violent ethos.

Social violence is the violence Americans, who would otherwise consider themselves law-abiding citizens, perpetrate in the name of law and social order. It is this sort of violence that lies at the steely heart of American culture: rioting, lynching, vigilantism, white capping, bald-knobbing, charivari, tar and feathering, and other acts of terrorism, anti-labor, nativist violence, as well as violent forms of recreation and entertainment. British colonists brought some of this with them to America. In England and Europe in general rioting diminished during the 19th century while in America it grew more frequent and joined with other forms of group action such as lynching and vigilantism to give the country a broad and deep skein of violent behavior. Upwards of 5000 lynchings since the Civil War, hundreds of riots stretching back to colonial days, enough violent strikes and lock-outs to give the United States the most violent labor history of any industrializing nation, nativist violence against immigrants, religious, ethnic and racial minorities, wars of conquest against Native Americans, eye-gouging matches in the backcountry, duels among the elite, and animal torture for sport—all of this went largely unchecked and fed on the commonweal like a virus.

For most of our history, rioting, lynching, and other forms of collective violence were carried out by groups of private individuals against other civilians, though often with the acquiescence if not outright participation of local authorities. In fact, as Hofstadter notes, “Most of our violence has taken the form of action by one group of citizens against another group, rather than by citizens against the state.”[34] States tolerated such behavior. The federal government remained studiously detached, claiming inaccurately into the mid-20th century that such matters lay outside its authority. The governmental blind eye allowed the local citizenry to settle conflicts on their own, invariably according to the will of the majority—a phenomenon that goes a long way towards explaining the totalitarian nature of racial violence.

As a device to preserve the system, social violence has generally been extralegal or extrajudicial in nature: illegal action perpetrated in the name of law, order, morality or tradition, that is, violence employed to preserve the system. For example, the actions of a lynch mob are by definition illegal, yet at the same time lynchers acted to enforce the law—or uphold their view of local culture, morality, social, racial, ethnic or religious tradition, regardless of what was actually legally codified or liturgically celebrated. In other words, social violence, as it is often characterized, is lawlessness on behalf of lawfulness or self-help justice, or private enforcement of the law.

Until the 1960s, for example, race riots were really racial pogroms: white-instigated and led actions that sought “to protect the American, the Southern, the white Protestant, or simply the established middle-class way of life and morals.”[35] Violent defense of tradition and the status quo also help explain why a remarkably small amount of social violence was directed against the federal government, or for that matter any governmental authority. This stems directly from social violence’s non-insurrectionary nature.[36] With some famous exceptions, such as the Whiskey Rebellion, 1791-94, and the Civil War, it was not until the 1960s that architects of civil disorder took aim squarely at government. This continued into the 1990s, gradually shifting from leftist violence to right-wing violence that peaked with the April 19, 1995, bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City.

[1] Quoted in Drew Gilpin Faust, This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War, (Alfred A. Knopf, 2008), 35.

[2] Hofstadter, 9.

[3] IBID.

[4] For a discussion of criminologist Lonnie Athens’ theory of “malignant communities, see Richard Rhodes, Why They Kill: The Discoveries of a Maverick Criminologist, (Alfred A. Knopf, 1999), 230–235.

[5] Peter Iadicola & Anson Shupe, Violence, Inequality, and Human Freedom, (Roman & Littlefield, 2003), 21-23, 53-55. Rhodes, 230, 235.

[6] Iadicola & Shupe, 28–34, 54.

[7] IBID, 28.

[8] George Herring, From Colony to Superpower, (Oxford University Press, 2006), 1–3.

[9] Brown, Strain of Violence, 42-44. Most of these events and description are taken from Brown, who makes it very clear that many if not most of the small insurrections, rebellions, and attempted coups were marginally violent or only threatened violence. And only Bacon’s Rebellion “involved major violence.”

[10] Ibid., 25.

[11] Eugene D. Genovese, From Rebellion to Revolution: Afro-American Slave revolts in The Making of The New World, (Vintage Books, 1981), 72–73.

[12] The agreed-upon death toll has been 618, 222 for over a century. A recent study of digitized records indicates the figure is closer to 750,000. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/03/science/civil-war-toll-up-by-20-percent-in-new-estimate.html

[13] *opinions vary about including the Cold War.

[14] Alan Greenspan, The Age of Turbulence: Adventures in a New World, (Penguin, 2007), 463.

[15] Dan Koeppel, Banana: The Fate of the Fruit that Changed the World, (Plume, 2008), 63-64. Here is a list of post-WW II troop deployments, some involving special ops. Not all of these became shooting wars and all of them may well have been necessary. The point here is that they were military operations.

       China 1945—49

       Italy 1947—48

       Greece 1947—049

       Philippines 1945—53

       South Korea 1945—53

       Albania 1949—53

       Germany 1945—present

       Iran 1953

       Guatemala 1953—1990s

       Indonesia 1957—58

       British Guyana 1953—64

       Vietnam 1950—73

       Cambodia 1955—73

       The Congo/Zaire 1960—65

       Brazil 1961—64

       Dominican Republic 1963—66

       Cuba 1959—present

       Indonesia 1965

       Chile 1964—73

       Greece 1964—74

       East Timor 1975—present

       Nicaragua 1978—89

       Grenada 1979—84

       Libya 1981—89

       Panama 1989

       Iraq 1990s

       Afghanistan 1979—92

       El Salvador 1980—92

       Haiti 1987—94

       Yugoslavia 1999

       Afghanistan 2001—present

       Iraq 2003—2011; 2014—present


[16] James William Gibson, Warrior Dreams: Violence and Manhood in Post-Vietnam America, (Hill and Wang, 1994), 16.

[17] In actuality, black troops, the famous Buffalo Soldiers of the 10th Cavalry and 24th Infantry, took San Juan Hill; TR’s Rough Riders protected the right flank by taking Kettle Hill, as dismounted cavalry. Gibson, 17–16. George Washington quoted in the New York Post, March 15, 2014, http://nypost.com/2014/03/15/which-president-could-you-beat-up/, accessed March 15, 2014.

[18] Gibson, 26.

[19] Franklin E. Zimring & Gordon Hawkins, Crime Is Not the Problem: Lethal Violence in America, (Oxford University Press, 1997), 1, 7, 19, 217.

[20] To Establish Justice, To Insure Domestic Tranquility: The Final Report of the National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence, (Bantam Books, 1970), xxv. Violent crime comes in four categories: robbery, rape, assault[20], and murder. Simple assault is usually a misdemeanor while aggravated assault is a felony. FindLaw: “Factors which raise an assault to an aggravated assault typically include the use of a weapon, the status of the victim, the intent of the perpetrator, and the degree of injury caused … assaults that happen in the victim's home.” http://criminal.findlaw.com/criminal-charges/aggravated-assault.html, accessed 7/2/16.

[21] Bureau of Justice Statistics, http://www.bjs.gov/index.cfm?ty=nvat, accessed 6/22/16.

[22] Glenn Kessler and Michelle Ye Hee-Lee. “Fact-checking Donald Trump’s acceptance speech at the 2016 RNC,” July 22, 2016. Michelle Ye Hee-Lee quoted in “What’s the summary of the fact check on Donald Trump’s RNC speech?” Quora.com, July, 2016.

[23] Click here for a survey of major acts of violence in 1990s. Violent crime remains way down from the 1990s.

[24] Stephen Pinker, The Better Angels of our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, (Penguin Press, 2011), 64, 92.

[25] U.N. Global Study on Homicide Rates, https://www.unodc.org/documents/gsh/pdfs/2014_GLOBAL_HOMICIDE_BOOK_web.pdf (accessed 7/19/16). See also Wikipedia’s interactive graph on intentional homicides based in part on this study.

[26] Pinker, 82–83.

[27] Friedman, Crime and Punishment in American History, 361.

[28] National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence, 120.

[29] Even if its use is justified, capital punishment is an important aspect of legally sanctioned state violence, and as such adds to the overall strain of national violence. As of 2015 the U.S. ranked fifth in the world in frequency of the death penalty: China, Iran, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the U.S. International law permits execution for only the “most serious” offenses, such as treason and murder.

[30] Commission report, 120.

[31] The Washington Post, July 24, 2016, A20. The Washington Post keeps a database of deadly police shootings for recent years here.  See also a far more comprehensive database: Killed by Police.net.

[32] Damien Cave and Rochelle Oliver, “The Videos That Are Putting Race and Policing Into Sharp Relief,” New York Times, July 6, 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2015/07/30/us/police-videos-race.html, accessed July 6, 2016.

[33] Manny FernandezRichard Pérez-Peña and Jonah Engel Bromwich,Five Dallas Officers Were Killed as Payback, Police Chief Says,” New York Times, July 8, 2016.  Amy Ellis Nutt, Matt Zapotosky  and Mark Berman, “Police say Baton Rouge gunman ‘was targeting officers’ and ambushed them,” July 18, 2016.

[34] Hofstadter, “Reflections on Violence in the United States,” 10.

[35] Hofstadter, from American Violence, 11.

[36] Michael Wallace, “The Uses of Violence,” 82, 96.

howard@howardsmead.com     © Howard Smead 2020