I have spent more than three decades covering conflict as either a journalist, State Department official or senior executive at the United States Institute of Peace. Global conflict does not scare me. But America in this election season does.
People are on edge. Voters are being texted, e-mailed, coaxed and cajoled. A pandemic has sickened and killed thousands, spreading viral particles and understandable fear and panic. Desperate people do desperate things, and my biggest concern is electoral violence — something I have always associated with overseas conflicts.
Election-related violence affects more than 20 percent of elections worldwide, with the ferocity varying from a few incidents of intimidation and destruction of property to large-scale deaths and mass population displacements. It is why we often have international observers present at elections.
The notion of heavily armed extremists hell-bent on disrupting our democracy should keep all of us awake at night. Think about the notion of an FBI agent saying last week that some of those charged in a plot to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen WhitmerGretchen WhitmerWhitmer leading possible GOP challengers in Michigan governor race: poll Whitmer isolating after husband's positive COVID-19 test Seven most vulnerable governors facing reelection in 2022 MORE also discussed “taking” Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam. The disturbing allegations about politically motivated violence surfaced during a day-long court hearing over what law enforcement officials say was a plan to abduct Michigan's highest elected official and either leave her on a boat in the middle of a lake or put her “on trial” before a self-styled militia.
We cannot dismiss rumors of violence as just one-offs. A briefing by the non-partisan Council on Foreign Relations says that the problem is that we are not talking about a monolithic or even coherent movement but myriad national, state and local groups, cells, collectives and other entities with varying degrees of organization and cohesion. Many of them are heavily armed and espouse a spectrum of white-supremacist, anti-government, pro-Second-Amendment and anarchist views.
It is hard to put an exact number on supporters or groups, but some estimates suggest there are some 300 different militia groups, with perhaps as many as 15,000 to 20,000 well-armed and often military-trained members active in every state of the union.
So, what must be done to avoid a violent November election season and promote peace?
The first and most important step is for the president to call for calm, distance himself from all extremist groups and demand that voting places be safe and devoid of vigilantes or armed citizens.
In 2020, with gun violence at epidemic levels in the United States, the presence of armed individuals angered by false claims of voter fraud creates a real security risk and should be strongly discouraged.
The Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, a group started by former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.), is pointing to the dangers of guns on election night. Giffords and at least 17 others were shot in 2011 when a gunman opened fire outside a supermarket where she was meeting with constituents. They have released a comprehensive state-by-state guide for election officials and workers to be ready to protect the right to vote from any potential acts of firearm intimidation.
The FBI and the Department of Homeland Security are on the frontlines, sending out advisories and ensuring that incitement is neither promoted nor tolerated in advance of the election. Police departments and officers will ensure that polling places are peaceful, and that law and order is maintained.
Lastly, we need to clean up the information space where rumors and conspiracy theories are metastasizing. Social media giants are doing their part to spot and remove hateful content that might inspire violence. But we as individuals can do more to monitor tweets and posts and avoid the temptation to pass along bad information. A useful guide for how to both understand the threat environment and reduce hateful disinformation is the podcast “extremely,” produced by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and American University.
This is a time for vigilance. It is a time to remind ourselves of our duty to protect our communities and our country from chaos. It may seem trite to say, but so much is at stake.
Tara D. Sonenshine is former U.S. under secretary of state for public diplomacy and is a fellow at George Washington University’s School of Media and Public Affairs.