Let’s look a couple examples of potential civil war triggers (general, not specific) in the US and their outcomes. I’ve developed a brief matrix on how civil conflicts develop and escalate into widespread, open violence. Also, please note that by “civil war” I don’t mean armies on battlefields but closer to widespread riots, looting, lawlessness, genocide, and what might be deemed as acts of terrorism.
World War III
A third world war happens that involves attacks on American soil. Nuclear, non-nuclear; doesn’t matter. Attacks happen, people are scared and the government must protect the military and infrastructure. So, martial law or something like is declared. From there, a police state develops. This actually happened in Hawaii where a military government was installed and enforced not just wartime regulations, but ordinary laws as well.
This idea could extend to something like rationing or a national speed limit to conserve oil. Since this is not the 1940s and we are not willing to sacrifice our freedoms, Americans revolt at the idea. Protests and non-compliance becomes violence. Government must respond harshly.
How about a draft? A draft today would be extremely unpopular for many reasons. I doubt even vigorous enforcement would be successful and the greater the pressure applied, the greater resistance the state would encounter from the public. Instead of running to Canada, some may choose to fight rather than submit for a warrant for failure to report to boot camp, etc.
Government’s missteps shouldn’t be ignored. If a guy posting a meme about the Democratic voting day being the day after Election Day gets prosecuted for an obvious joke, what if people who express their opinion that no one should join the military or allow themselves to be drafted are targeted? The Sedition Act was used to target dissenters during World War I, so this isn’t an exaggeration.
18 U.S. Code § 2388
Whoever, when the United States is at war, willfully causes or attempts to cause insubordination, disloyalty, mutiny, or refusal of duty, in the military or naval forces of the United States, or willfully obstructs the recruiting or enlistment service of the United States, to the injury of the service or the United States, or attempts to do so--
Broke people who are left destitute and possibly homeless are being hammered by the IRS to pay taxes that they can’t pay; wages are garnished and bank accounts seized. People are incensed at the IRS picking the last pennies out of a broke man’s pocket. Others are driven to homicidal despair by things of suddenly finding out that they owe taxes $200k on “forgiven” debt on a home they had to walk away from.
Somebody snaps and decides to kill the deputy who evicts them. This idea catches on and goes viral. Soon everyone who doesn’t want to get evicted is resisting. This expands into a class warfare type situation or resistance against supposed inequalities in the justice system. Tragically, this movement normalizes the use of violence to interfere with ordinary law enforcement. Cops are being killed in a real war on cops.
Just like most people, cops will not do their job if they are being killed for it. Self-sacrifice and bad luck is one thing, but when cops are being assassinated on TikTok because a hashtag is circulating? You’re gonna find anyone who doesn’t quit just sitting around the station. The nation’s security situation will continue to slip until it breaks down totally and the rule of law is utterly ineffective.
If you don’t believe that the thin blue line protects society from descending into chaos, you should. It’s not that police are superheroes, but they and the criminal justice system are a deterrent for some and literally do keep our civilization orderly. If you want to see what a society with no cops looks like, look to Portland or San Francisco. Now just imagine that cops aren’t even responding to 911 calls. If you hated being deployed in Iraq, you’re really going to hate it when there is no rule of law in America.
Doesn’t matter how they began or where they began, but the riots go national and get violent. Perhaps some form of racial or political violence is nascently encouraged, causing more trouble than just the typical looting and vandalism. Imagine 2020 but not isolated to downtowns in major cities only and the police don’t get a handle on it.
A high-profile use of force against rioters by private citizens occurs that inspires rioters to take more violent action. The riots escalate beyond the ability of police to intervene. Perhaps the Nat’l Guard gets involved or the Insurrection Act is invoked. In any case, the normal mechanisms of riot control fail and the situation goes from a riot to chaos. This gives the federal government some BS excuse to invoke the Insurrection Act (10 USC § 253).
18 U.S. Code § 231 - Civil disorders
Whoever teaches or demonstrates to any other person the use, application, or making of any firearm or explosive or incendiary device, or technique capable of causing injury or death to persons, knowing or having reason to know or intending that the same will be unlawfully employed for use in, or in furtherance of, a civil disorder
I would imagine that in today’s climate there would probably be a disproportionate use of force on one side or the other. The disfavored side would likely be disarmed, subjected to intense law enforcement scrutiny, and perhaps even detained. Self-defense against the favored group, even if justified, would be reason to put someone away. The government would then be seen as partisan and likely targeted to dissuade them from preventing citizens from protecting themselves or settling scores on their own.
Imagine a future where the left has a trifecta in Washington; a filibuster proof majority, both houses of Congress, and a Democratic president. A leftist state, like California, Illinois, or New York might just decide to ignore any court rulings. The case Worcester v. Georgia over Cherokee tribal sovereignty is an example of such a crisis, famous for President Jackson’s apocryphal quote “[Chief Justice] John Marshall has made his decision; now let him enforce it!” This nearly lead to South Carolina seceding from the Union (it did in 1861 for other reasons).
It’s entire possible that a leftist state simply refuses to cease enforcement or repeal unconstitutional laws after the Supreme Court invalidates them. Imagine hearing “New York will not be subject to the tyranny of six extreme MAGA judges in Washington DC!” California might make some incredibly tough restriction and enforce it anyway, ignoring any injunctions, trying to do as much damage as it can before the courts can sort the mess out.
The progression might go something like this: sweeping gun control legislation coupled with high-profile raids/arrests. Someone decides to resist and we have a new Ruby Ridge.
If the RW doesn’t get involved then and there, we may see retaliation against the Feds and law enforcement. This begins a self-perpetuating cycle where government action leads to an insurgent response and the level of violence escalates with each step.
With Trump possibly being indicted as I write this, a high-profile political arrest of a presidential candidate intended to keep him from running, at least successfully, is within the realm of possibility. So, I substitute an alternative; the incarceration of a major political figure. A biased blue-state jury convicts a popular conservative politician and he is to be jailed.
This politician or someone on his behalf actively calls the public to prevent the arrest from happening and for violence. It has happened in the elsewhere in the world and jailbreaks have happened on smaller scales in this country. Anti-government violence occurs, pitting pro-politician citizens against police and the other party. The government must respond with a heavy hand, causing the big-name politician’s supports to escalate their own violence. All sorts of stuff that goes in the terrorism category ensues.
Escalating cycle of violence
In all of these cases, an escalating cycle of violence beings. The government must respond harshly not only to eliminate the threat, but to serve as an example for retaliation, continuing violence, etc. The non-government forces will also have to escalate their attacks to make continued the state response unsuccessful. Things will get ugly.
In Northern Ireland, the PIRA sought to make peaceful, democratic rule impossible by forcing the British to turn the country into a police state. British rule was delegitimized in the eyes of the Republicans/Catholics although the state did maintain a monopoly of power. The PIRA couldn’t win on conventional military terms so terrorist tactics went wild, eventually affecting not just the military/police, but innocent civilians on both sides as well.
Even the British began playing dirty tricks like themselves terrorists. Plenty of other civil wars have shown that governments can go way too far. The Nazis began as a reaction to a communist revolution in Germany during the post-WWI chaos and look at what that morphed into. Communists also start out wanting to make life better but the next thing you know you have a Che Guevara type shooting formerly rich people in the head.
The violence only stops early-on two ways: If the government takes the high road, it disengages and does not allow the other side to bait it. Or, the insurgents are so overwhelming devastated it breaks their ability to wreak violence and discourages any further resistance. Basically, one side has to be superlatively violent to get the other to capitulate.
January 6 showed us that the government will not only prosecute, but persecute, with no semblance of justice or fair dealing, those that existentially threaten its power. Other incidents have shown that the government does not often make good choices when exercising lawful police power (Ruby Ridge, Waco). That we did not get a civil war because of the Bundy Standoff in 2014 was a miracle.
In a time such as this, does anyone honestly think that if the government does play by the rules, but while pursuing an ultimately immoral policy, that half of the country will idly sit by and allow it to happen? I very much doubt it. Insurgents will strike back asymmetrically and that always means things will get ugly because all government can do at that point is take the gloves off.
Author Don Shift
Don Shift is a veteran of the Ventura County Sheriff's Office and avid fan of post-apocalyptic literature and film who has pushed a black and white for a mile or two. He is a student of disasters, history, and current events.