Why I Don’t Believe in Punching Nazis

CHARLOTTESVILLE, VA - AUGUST 12: White nationalists, neo-Nazis and members of the "alt-right" (L) clash with counter-protesters as they enter Emancipation Park during the Unite the Right rally August 12, 2017 in Charlottesville, Virginia. After clashes with anti-facist protesters and police the rally was declared an unlawful gathering and people were forced out of Lee Park, where a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee is slated to be removed. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

First of all, I have not yet participated in a protest where Antifa was present. I know that there’s an impossibly entangled mess of spin and truth about what Antifa has actually done. So the purpose of this post is not to critique actions I haven’t witnessed so much as offer my own reflections about when and how physical confrontation seems acceptable to me in street protest. Whatever has or hasn’t actually happened, I am unequivocally against engaging in acts of violence for the sole purpose of intimidation, even against Nazis.

I am strategically and religiously nonviolent, but I am not an ideological pacifist, meaning that I will never take up arms or engage in physical violence myself but I do not categorically condemn armed insurrection in all circumstances. In totalitarian contexts, armed insurrection seems justified to me. While I have much to criticize about Fidel Castro and Daniel Ortega, I do not see their armed insurrections to overthrow Fulgencio Bautista and Anastasio Somoza as innately immoral. Though Castro and Ortega ended up becoming dictators to different degrees, I’m not convinced that armed insurrection always inevitably has that result. Frantz Fanon writes quite persuasively in Wretched of the Earth that colonialism almost always requires armed insurrection to overthrow it.

The problem is that the line between acceptable and unacceptable militarism is never as clean as privileged people like me would like it to be. The default line Western culture likes to draw is to say that killing civilians is terrorism while killing military opponents in combat is valid, which works when you’re talking about two conventional militaries fighting each other, a scenario that rarely if ever happens anymore.

So if a fascist mob of civilians is armed with shields and bats, do they constitute a military target? What if they all have AR-15’s? When do they stop being civilians? Is preemptive strike legitimate or only self-defense? At what point are we actually in a civil war situation where protesters aren’t actually planning protest rallies but paramilitary engagements? We need to wrestle with these questions because the line between protest and insurrection is starting to get erased. Do we want to be supporting actions that escalate violence to the level of full-on civil war? That has stopped being a tinfoil hat kind of question to ask.

Given the disturbing evolution of our political landscape, I feel responsible for loudly advocating nonviolence in the street except in the case of self-defense. If someone with a baseball bat is charging at you or a vulnerable person you can protect, then I think it’s okay to intervene as forcefully as necessary. If a mob of racists is trying to gang-beat a black person to death (which they tried to do in Charlottesville), it seems reasonable to block their path and engage them in hand to hand combat. However, I am completely opposed to the idea of intimidating fascists through preemptive physical violence for both moral and strategic reasons. And I’m extremely concerned that intimidation is being normalized as a legitimate reason for violence.

Martyrdom is very attractive to disenchanted young men. That lesson ought to be awfully clear from the past three decades of Islamic terrorism in the Middle East. It may seem morally righteous to be cavalier about punching Nazis, but anyone with any degree of knowledge about human psychology could tell you that it’s stupid and dangerous to try to physically overpower a movement whose identity is parasitically dependent upon perceived persecution.

What scares the hell out of me is the thought of a rapidly spreading, hyper-masculine game of public Fight Club in which white men deal with their demons by beating the shit out of each other and eventually by spraying bullets into opposing crowds. No, I’m not saying that there’s an alt-left and alt-right that are mirror images of one another, but I don’t want to see toxic masculinity metastasize unchecked within antifascist protest culture (if that’s what’s happening) because of misplaced defensiveness that is being transplanted from other debates. I fear that physical violence may attract fascists rather than repel them by providing a means for existentially ruined men to go out in a blaze of glory.

It is critically important that we remain capable of non-binary conversations. Right now, too much discourse is being reduced to pro- and anti-. We figure out the one right line to retweet on our side and every other possible nuance is total betrayal. To say Black Lives Matter is a terrorist organization because some random black person set a gas station on fire is completely different from saying that white antifascist protesters shouldn’t punch Nazis unprovoked because it’s wrong and increases the danger for everyone. The first statement is wicked, cynical propaganda; the second is part of necessary movement dialogue that should not be drowned out with dismissive viral tweets.

Because of the postmodern tendency to use every debate to categorically invalidate the other side, the reflex of progressives is to treat any critique of anti-fascist tactics as just another form of “whataboutism” or #ManySides. But movements that have lost the space to self-critique and disagree internally have become totalitarian whether they’re fighting for beautiful ideals or not. I’m not saying that’s where we are; I’m saying that we have to speak up to avoid becoming that away.

So please let’s not allow violence for the sake of intimidation to become normalized as politically legitimate, regardless of who the recipient is. If violence becomes normalized, then it will be normalized for all parties, and we will be swept into a horror whose end I can’t even imagine. After surviving torture and brutality in Siberian prison camps, the Russian writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn said that “the battle-line between good and evil runs through the heart of every man.” It’s not my fault that the fascists are gaining strength in our country, but it’s my responsibility to resist them strategically and prayerfully, fully aware of my own capacity for evil.

If there are folks in the antifascist movement who feel like I’ve misunderstood what’s going on or have a different perspective to share, I’d love to hear it.

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