Symbolic Victories Are Often Real Losses
Judging from his statements and the note he left in his car, James von Brunn walked into the Holocaust Museum believing that he was about to strike a blow against Jewish world hegemony and Federal gun-control. Even by his twisted standards, his actions were counterproductive. His plan was to massacre people visiting and working at the holocaust museum, and to symbolically harm Jews, whom he believed were looting non-Jewish people through their control of the government and the financial industry among others.
Let us examine, though, the effects of von Brunn’s attack. He murdered a security guard, Stephen T. Johns (who, it should be noted, had courteously opened the door let in the man who would murder him). Within hours, the security guards who shot von Brunn down were rightly being lionized, and by extension, the entire apparatus of security-guards-cum-metal-detectors that have come to characterize the modern U.S. People started agitating for further limitations on weapons ownership, freedom of speech and against organizations that agitate for freeing people from government oversight. There was a massive outpouring of sympathy for Jews. Two days after von Brunn’s attack, about the time doctors were concluding that he would survive his wounds, the Holocaust museum was open for business. No doubt within a week they will have hired Stephen Johns’ replacement.
In other words, from von Brunn’s perspective he lost: he suffered life threatening wounds, incited in people a hatred of his movement, shot an easily replaced, ‘expendable’ guard and shut a museum down for one day while giving it lots of free publicity.
Much as we libertarians abhor murderous savages like von Brunn, we should take note of the effects of his attack. His attack is one of many that all demonstrate an important rule of resistance against the state. Like John Brown’s attack on Harper’s Ferry, the assassination of McKinley, and countless other acts of symbolic violence, von Brunn’s attack discredited his movement and increased sympathy for his opponents.
Hardly a month goes by without some fellow libertarian radical posting a comment to the effect that the second amendment is what protects the other rights supposedly enshrined in the U.S. Constitution, or writing cliched statements containing the phrase “ballot box, soap box, ammo box”. In the 2008 primary season, Ron Paul supporters reveled in their symbolic victory after they chased Rudy Giuliani off the weather-deck of a ferry.
While such chest-thumping is very satisfying, and satisfies a psychological need to feel powerful, it is usually a losing strategy; any action that swings sympathy towards our opponents will make us weaker. The psychology of crowds is fairly well understood. Crowds hate the weak. Paradoxically, crowds also envy the powerful. They want security and to live free of fear and uncertainty. They don’t care about philosophy, and their conception of justice and morality is a crude, instinctual one that is the product of human evolution.
Turning the mob in a pro-freedom direction requires a combination of the following:
- Inciting in people a hatred and contempt of the political classes and the bureaucrat and police who do their bidding.
- Making people aware of how badly the political classes are ripping them off.
- Developing institutions that perform social functions that do not use coercion to acquire resources.
- Encouraging people to rely on themselves and those institutions.
Most violent/semi-violent protests incite in people a fear of the protestors. The people then turn to the government to protect them from the scary protestors. When the protests or political actions or symbolic acts of vandalism don’t accomplish any meaningful change, the net result is a stronger, more powerful government that has been given permission to suppress the movement that the symbolic act was meant to promote.
Successful protest movements like the black civil rights movement succeeded precisely because the symbolic acts encouraged people to identify with the protesters. When the police set german shepherds on black people walking in orderly columns, the people seeing the images and video saw the police as the dangerous mob and the protesters as being the civilized, non-threatening party to the conflict.
It is very important that we who advocate for freedom keep this in mind; disorderly or scary behavior turns people against us. Freedom is civilized. Commerce is peaceful. Free markets are bountiful. Let us allow the government an uncontested claim on the mantle of civilization-threatening barbarity it has worked so hard to earn.