Tensions are running high in America as social and political forces collide, sometimes forcefully, and sometimes in the streets. Political polarization in America has been closely studied over the last several decades and while the large-scale impact of social media, which has only risen to prominence in perhaps the last five years, is still being understood it is clear the advent of advanced communications technologies is placing additional stressors on the fabric of society. We have no reached a point where many openly talk about acts of political violence and even civil war.

In a recent essay written by Hamilton Nolan, he angrily described many real and perceived injustices that have occurred during the Trump administration and outlined how the backlash will go far beyond heckling political appointees at restaurants:

These people, who are pushing America merrily down the road to fascism and white nationalism, are delusional if they do not think that the backlash is going to get much worse. Wait until the recession comes. Wait until Trump starts a war. Wait until the racism this administration is stoking begins to explode into violence more frequently. Read a fucking history book. Read a recent history book. The U.S. had thousands of domestic bombings per year in the early 1970s. This is what happens when citizens decide en masse that their political system is corrupt, racist, and unresponsive.

On the other side of the coin, alt-right provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos has been responding to journalists (via text) asking for his comment as follows, “I can’t wait for the vigilante squads to start gunning journalists down on sight.” Such yearning for political violence from the far right is not isolated as we can also recall an advertisement from a Florida based gun company that displayed a handful of black-clad “patriots” with AR-15s standing up to Antifa protesters.

A recent poll conducted by the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation found that Millennials are rejecting our current form of democracy, as well as capitalism. While many favor socialism, what is even more frightening is that 7% of those polled favor communism and another 7% favor fascism. This would appear to indicate that 14% of young people in America are now political extremists. A Rasmussen poll released this June revealed that 31% of those polled believe that America will experience a civil war in the next five years.

While it is important not to take alarmist positions especially about something like civil war, it is hard to deny that the stage has been neatly set for political violence in the near future. I have personally witnessed some on the far left walk right up to the line with their rhetoric, stopping just short of calling for an armed insurrection against what they see as the “forces of reaction” that threaten our lives. I have also heard veterans talking about how America needs another 9/11 attack in order to get our country, “back on track.”

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It is equally distressing to see so many people on social media, including many military veterans, openly welcoming the notion of a civil war. Some naively believe that with war will come a cleansing fire, a creative destruction that will set things right. These are the daydreams generated by television shows and movies in which the apocalypse brings people together and instills a sense of community in us. However, history tells us a very different tale.

Many on the far left and far right will never act in violent ways, some are even pacifists, but it may only take one lunatic in one of those movements to light the fuse. To be sure, political violence is already taking place, it is just a question of degree. One targeted assassination, one bombing, could end up changing this country forever. As Hamilton Nolan pointed out in his essay, another catalyst for a civil war could be the United States heading into another recession. In these periods, extremist ideologies carry more water than usual for people as they appear to offer a solution. In this scenario, Americans would be forced to choose a side as the centrist positions fall out as the middle class is obliterated.

America’s second civil war would not look like our first. We won’t line up and shoot each other with muskets and cannons. America’s second civil war would be the culmination of what some theorists call 4th Generation Warfare, which William Lind describes as:

Characteristics such as decentralization and initiative carry over from the Third to the Fourth Generation, but in other respects the Fourth Generation marks the most radical change since the Peace of Westphalia. In Fourth Generation war, the state loses its monopoly on war. All over the world, state militaries find themselves fighting nonstate opponents such as al-Qaeda, Hamas, Hezbollah, and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia. Almost everywhere, the state is losing. Fourth Generation war is also marked by a return to a world of cultures, not merely states, in conflict.

If one were to attempt to draw a historical anagram, you could look at Italy’s so-called years of lead that in which wanton political violence nearly tore the country apart from the 1960’s into the 1980’s. The years of lead took place against the backdrop of student radicalism, the cold war, and America’s building of post-World War II global order. The CIA has been alleged to have rigged elections in both Greece and Italy during the 1950’s. These countries were seen as staging areas in which power could be projected throughout the Mediterranean and the U.S. was not going to let them fall to communist forces. The years of lead in Italy were characterized by two forms of terrorism: red and black. Red terrorism was waged by communists and black terrorism by fascists.

In Italy, this was an era of great uncertainty, which was probably the point all along. Behind the scenes, deviant elites played at game that some have called a strategy of tension. Anarchists, fascists, and communists assassinated public figures and conducted bombings. Crypto-fascist elements even launched a coup of the Italian government, one which lasted about an hour before being called off. A fascist group even bombed police officers as a sort of false flag attack to try to push the state further to the right. The “Black Order” conducted a train bombing in 1974 that killed 12 people. No one was safe as public demonstrators, police officers, judges, and journalists were targeted in a rash of assassinations and reprisal killings that went on for decades.

In 1978, Italy’s then Prime Minister, Aldo Moro, was kidnapped by the Red Brigades just as he was about to reach a historic compromise between Italy’s Christian Democracy party (Italian: Democrazia Cristiana, DC) and their country’s communist party. After 55 days, Moro was murdered, his corpse left in the trunk of a car in Rome. The political violence in Italy was unending. As the assassinations continued, a bombing in at a Bologna train station by neo-fascists in 1980 claimed the lives of 75 civilians, becoming known as the Bologna massacre.

In 1981 American General James Dozier was kidnapped by the Red Brigade. The United States responded by deploying the ultra-secret Intelligence Support Activity (ISA) to Italy to try to acquire signal intercepts that might lead authorities to his location. He was held for a month and a half before the Italian police ran a tight and efficient rescue operation that freed Dozier without firing a shot.

The assassinations continued straight through the 1980’s and the reverberations have been felt through the 2000s as there were a few isolated attacks.

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The story of Italy’s Years of Lead is so much more complicated than any summary has described. It has long been understood that “black” terrorism in Italy was manipulated by agents of the deep state, a criminal collaboration between mafia organizations and the intelligentsia working with neo-fascists. In Berlin, the U.S. Army had a unit called Detachment A, manned by U.S. Special Forces soldiers who would act as stay-behinds in case the Soviets invaded, in which case they would then begin conducting acts of sabotage. The CIA helped stand up civilian stay-behind cells all over Europe to respond in the event of a Soviet invasion. In Italy, this network was code-named Gladio. Many of these networks were hijacked by criminals and used for their own purposes.

Perhaps even more controversial, is the notion that “red” terrorism was also being manipulated. Interestingly, there is little if any evidence that the USSR or other Warsaw Pact nations ran terror cells in Western Europe (although the KGB did run a few Palestinian terrorists as intel assets) and this likely would have been a provocative action that the western intelligence services would have responded to in kind. These were the days of Moscow Rules after all. However, some researchers have come to conclude that agents of the state also pushed communist terrorists where they wanted them to go, provided invisible hand rails, and allowed certain attacks to go forward.

Simplistic comparisons are often lacking and one does not want to fall into the trap of saying that “this is like that.” Italy is a unique country with a unique political and social history which cannot be directly compared to the United States. Furthermore, the global order has shifted and technology has evolved since the Cold War years. However, Italy’s history of political violence offers a snapshot of what this type of terrorism may look like in the United States.

For a decade and a half, our military has fought non-state actors and is now struggling with the notion of returning to the days of preparing to fight other states. America’s law enforcement has lots of experience in counter-terrorism and has built important capabilities since 9/11 and adapted them in the aftermath of attacks such as those seen in Mumbai. But whether or not our domestic law enforcement agencies are prepared to deal with intelligent, compartmentalized cells of neo-fascists and neo-communists remains to be seen.

The new guerrilla will come from a younger generation, will likely be highly educated, understand how to use various types of encryption, and will be aware of how forensic evidence works. They will carry visages of the fascists and communists of the past, but will not be task organized in a hierarchy like past guerrilla groups who had political wings, action wings, etc. The modern guerrilla will structure his or her organization in a decentralized manner, one that will likely mimic how these people currently self-organize on social media since that is what they are already familiar with.

The stage has been set, the placemats are laid out, and the personalities are in waiting. America’s Years of Lead are only just beginning.

Suggested reading:

Puppetmasters by Philip Willan

NATO’s Secret Armies by Daniele Ganser

Featured image: Italian police and security officers swarm about a red car in which the bullet-riddled body of former Premier Aldo Moro was found sprawled in Rome, Italy, May 9, 1978. Searchers responding to an anonymous telephone call found Moro’s body after a 55-day ordeal that stunned the world. The slaying was attributed to the Red Brigades, a terrorist group. | AP Photo/Gianni Giansanti