Over the past few years, our country has plunged into a debate about free speech and tolerance. This isn’t the first time and it won’t be the last. Our country — dedicated in principle to freedom of speech and a tolerant political culture — has grappled with the meaning of both of these ideas since its inception. After the brazen and provocative displays of Nazi flags in the march on Charlottesville during which a woman was killed by a neo-Nazi, our debate grows more heated. Some have decided that since the government stands by its commitment to freedom of speech, political violence, physical intimidation and extralegal punishment of those who display symbols of hate is necessary and even obligatory. Political violence, however, is not only morally wrong, but will lead our country further into the abyss.
In recent years, as Nazi fringes and “alt-right” forums spilled into the public space, there has been frantic discussion among media, cultural and academic elites over the extent to which certain speech is tolerated. Is the speech of neo-Nazis protected by the First Amendment? Should citizens use extralegal force and violence against these fringes when they congregate?
To promote this sentiment and encourage political violence of this sort, especially as a prominent figure, is unbearably irresponsible. It must be said that if any ideology should be met with universal condemnation, it is Nazism. Growing up in a family with both Holocaust survivors and missing relatives that were murdered in death camps, seeing Nazi symbols embraced, displayed and paraded so brazenly chills me to the bone.
Political violence is the death knell of civil society. Our cultural and historical experience spurs us to struggle, and our commitment to these liberties — the freedom from political violence — is paramount. It is easy to grant these rights to our friends and political allies, even to those with whom we have substantial disagreement. It is difficult beyond words to give these to our enemies. Still, they must be given because if they are denied to someone today, they can be denied to you tomorrow.
The troubling thing about political violence — promoting it, practicing it — is not only that people bleed, but that our categories for who is and who is not a legitimate target of political violence bleed, too. The lines between them are blurred because it is too easy to do so. This instrument — the “legitimate” physical intimidation of others — is a potent tool. If we have learned one thing from the Nazis of the 20th century, it is that ordinary men and women can be compelled to do horrible things, and sometimes, they don’t have to be compelled. It is too easy to blend our categories — to identify and denounce others as the enemy and see violence as an appropriate response. If you believe that our categorization for whom it is acceptable to inflict violence upon will end strictly at those wearing armbands, you have learned nothing from history.
Make no mistake: The neo-Nazi and white supremacist movements in this country are intentionally provocative. They mean to enrage and make their hatred the norm. Violence is what these movements crave because they thrive on chaos and insecurity. In normal civil society, they cannot gain the traction they desperately want because in peaceful societies, citizens rightly try to avoid violence. Provoking and encouraging violence is how these groups spread their influence. If denying them this influence is the most important of our goals, then maintaining our civil society — and ignoring the siren call of romanticized political violence — is the only way forward.
Political violence isn’t a precision weapon; it’s Pandora’s box. Be prepared for what you unleash. Once it’s open, it’s difficult, if not impossible, to go back.
Aaron Bondar is a junior double-majoring in economics and political science.