Dangerous Prophecies
The Atlantic|January - February 2022
The assumption that civil war is inevitable in America is inflammatory and corrosive.
By Fintan O’Toole

In January 1972, when I was a 13-year-old boy in Dublin, my father came home from work and told us to prepare for civil war. He was not a bloodthirsty zealot, nor was he given to hysterical outbursts. He was calm and rueful, but also grimly certain: Civil war was coming to Ireland, whether we wanted it or not. He and my brother, who was 16, and I, when I got older, would all be up in Northern Ireland with guns, fighting for the Catholics against the Protestants.

What made him so sure of our fate was that the British army’s parachute regiment had opened fire on the streets of Derry, after an illegal but essentially peaceful civil-rights march. Troops killed 13 unarmed people, mortally wounded another, and shot more than a dozen others. Intercommunal violence had been gradually escalating, but this seemed to be a tipping point. There were just two sides now, and we all would have to pick one. It was them or us.

The conditions for civil war did indeed seem to exist at that moment. Northern Irish society had become viciously polarized between one tribe that felt itself to have suffered oppression and another one fearful that the loss of its power and privilege would lead to annihilation by its ancient enemies. Both sides had long-established traditions of paramilitary violence. The state—in this case both the local Protestant-dominated administration in Belfast and the British government in London—was not only unable to stop the meltdown into anarchy; it was, as the massacre in Derry proved, joining in.

Yet my father’s fears were not fulfilled. There was a horrible, 30-year conflict that brought death to thousands and varying degrees of misery to millions. There was terrible cruelty and abysmal atrocity. There were decades of despair in which it seemed impossible that a polity that had imploded could ever be rebuilt. But the conflict never did rise to the level of civil war.

However, the belief that there was going to be a civil war in Ireland made everything worse. Once that idea takes hold, it has a force of its own. The demagogues warn that the other side is mobilizing. They are coming for us. Not only do we have to defend ourselves, but we have to deny them the advantage of making the first move. The logic of the preemptive strike sets in: Do it to them before they do it to you. The other side, of course, is thinking the same thing. That year, 1972, was one of the most murderous in Northern Ireland precisely because this doomsday mentality was shared by ordinary, rational people like my father. Premonitions of civil war served not as portents to be heeded, but as a warrant for carnage.

COULD THE SAME THING happen in the United States? Much of American culture is already primed for the final battle. There is a very deep strain of apocalyptic fantasy in fundamentalist Christianity. Armageddon may be horrible, but it is not to be feared, because it will be the harbinger of eternal bliss for the elect and eternal damnation for their foes. On what used to be referred to as the far right, but perhaps should now simply be called the armed wing of the Republican Party, the imminence of civil war is a given.

Indeed, the conflict can be imagined not as America’s future, but as its present. In an interview with The Atlantic published in November 2020, two months before the invasion of the U.S. Capitol on January 6, the founder of the Oath Keepers, Stewart Rhodes, declared: “Let’s not fuck around.” He added, “We’ve descended into civil war.” The following month, the FBI, warning of possible attacks on state capitols, said that members of the so-called boogaloo movement “believe an impending insurgency against the government is forthcoming and some believe they should accelerate the timeline with armed, antigovernment actions leading to a civil war.”

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