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How do you reintegrate someone into society after they have participated in mass violence, like war or crimes against humanity?

This is not a question we often ask ourselves. When at peace, it seems impossibly distant or subject to easy answers; when at war, the question of how to reintegrate the people trying to kill you into society seems obscene. But it is an extremely important practical question, and if you haven’t spent time on it, you may not be aware of how important it is to understanding both our history and current events: we live in the aftermath of its successes and failures. In America, the failure of reintegration after slavery so strongly defines our culture that it’s hard to imagine what the country would look like without it.

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Cannon,” by Chris Ubik.

Success and Failure

There are too many failures for there to be a textbook example. Sometimes they take the form of powerful militias forming out of poorly-demobilized soldiers, as in Iraq after the second Gulf War; sometimes in the rise of less-organized gangs, as in many Central American countries after their 20th-century civil wars; and sometimes even in fundamental mechanisms of government, as in Russia after the fall of the USSR. (This last case illustrates how it’s not just war that does this: the systematic violence in the Soviet case came in the form of purges, secret police, people being exiled to Siberia or executed in the basement of Lubyanka, for decades on end.)

What the failures have in common is a population accustomed to using extreme violence as part of their daily lives, returning to “normal life” and continuing to use such violence on a daily basis — but this violence becomes so widespread that, instead of being condemned and treated as an outrage (like it would have been before), it becomes part of people’s normal expectation of daily life. Violent crime, brutal corruption, gangster governments, or outright failed states follow.

The Three Factors

The first is autonomy of violence. In a well-disciplined army fighting a “traditional” war, individual soldiers very rarely initiate violence at all: attacks are coordinated and ordered from above, with planning typically by people not directly involved, and all operations are subject to strict rules of engagement. In cases like this, “reintegration” in the sense we’re talking about becomes much simpler, focusing on soldiers’ needs to recover from physical and psychic injuries, to adapt to civilian jobs, and so on. Allied armies at the end of WWII are good examples of this end of the spectrum: “violence perpetrated by returning veterans” is not a highly memorable political category to describe the late 1940’s.

There are three major factors affecting whether reintegration succeeds or fails: Perpetrators’ autonomy in choosing violence, economic opportunity, and whether the war actually ended at all.

This level of control breaks down when armies start to lose their organization, especially in prolonged civil or guerrilla wars, where individual units start to acquire drastically more autonomy. It is even more extreme in crimes against humanity committed outside of war, because these typically thrive on the fear engendered by individual agents — from machete-wielding neighbors, to slave overseers, to police officers — having nearly unfettered power to be unpredictably violent.

This individual power to choose violence makes a tremendous difference afterwards: you end up with people who have spent a prolonged period where initiating extreme violence for one’s own purposes is encouraged, normalized, even required for survival. Re-adapting to a world in which this is strictly forbidden is hard, especially if all of your friends and people around you are in the same situation as you are.

The second factor is economic opportunity, or rather, its lack. This one shouldn’t be surprising: if people trying to reenter society — to get a job, have a family, build a life — find themselves immediately stopped, either by general poverty, or more seriously by poverty which only affects them — say, because they are barred from normal jobs by law, then they are going to become idle and frustrated. Unemployment and rejection from “normal life” are bad enough, but when you apply them to people who have become accustomed to using violence as their normal way to solve problems, you have a recipe for trouble.

Essentially, people need the opportunity to exit the life they were living during the previous violence. If this opportunity is unavailable, they can fall back on what they know.

The third factor is so obvious that at first it seems bizarre: Did the war (or atrocity, or whatever) actually end at all? Sometimes it seems as if a war ended, or as if a previously brutal government has been shut down and replaced with another, but it is actually continuing under another name. In such a situation, the perpetrators of violence are not actually reintegrating at all: rather, there is an illusion of reintegration masking a continuation of the violence itself.

The Russian case is a simple and relatively uncontroversial example. The Soviet regime encouraged the violent and opportunistic to acquire power, just like the Czarist regime did before it. Afterwards, these people took advantage of the power vacuum created by Yeltsin to transfer the country’s industry into their own hands — and now they found themselves building up their own mechanisms of force, often using veterans of Afghanistan (and later Chechnya) and encouraging them not to reintegrate at all. The line between “oligarch” and “mafioso” was impossible to define, because anyone having a wealth of billions of dollars in the aftermath of the USSR quite literally couldn’t have acquired it through practices that anywhere else would recognize as “legitimate.”

But in many cases, this third factor yields consequences profoundly different from the other two factors. The first two represent situations where, due to profound evil or due to a complete collapse of order, due to bad fortune or bad decisions, reintegration fails despite a society’s wish for it to succeed. A failure of the third kind indicates a failure which happens when the society didn’t want reintegration to happen in the first place — or even an end to the violence at all.

The American Experience

In both of these cases, there was extensive autonomy in the use of violence. Slavery was the most extreme case of this, where every white person was empowered and even expected to violently put down any “uppity” behavior of a black person; where torture, rape, murder, and the theft of children became so commonplace even among “polite” society as to become entirely unexceptional. Native genocide was less extreme only in that it was more geographically limited: the average white person living in an American city of the 19th or 20th century would only rarely have a chance to directly participate in similar atrocities. But participate they did, at every opportunity; in the 1870’s, it was popular to schedule train rides into the countryside where people could gun down buffalo en masse as a kind of public amusement, with hawkers and mementos explaining the plan — “One dead buffalo; one dead Indian!

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Left: Piles of buffalo skulls; right: an 1876 coin commemorating the engineered famine.

But while both cases had tremendous economic opportunity available in their aftermath, they critically failed the question of whether the war actually ended.

Neither the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation, nor the 1865 peace treaty at Appomattox, ended the system of slavery. 1865 is best understood as the “Mission Accomplished” moment of the Civil War: the end of large-scale organized fighting, but the introduction to a twelve-year period of guerrilla violence aimed at preventing newly freed Black Americans from acquiring political or economic rights.

By 1877, when the South was formally admitted back into the Union, the system of “New Slavery” had been instituted not just in the South, but in the North: Black men were routinely rounded up and charged with trivial crimes such as vagrancy or possession of a pocketknife, fined $5 plus “court costs” totaling well over $100 (about $3,000 total in 2018 dollars), and if they couldn’t pay the fine, some kindly white man would be there to pay it for them — they would simply pay him back in labor. They would promptly be transported over to a plantation, factory, or mine, where they were housed in slave quarters, whipped for failure to obey or work, fed on slave food, and chased with dogs or shot if they attempted to escape. Their new masters would pay a kickback to the justice of the peace (who would distribute part of it to the police who did the arresting); these kickbacks accounted for the majority of most JP’s income. Unlike the old system, where a slave was a capital investment costing as much as a car does today, slaves could now be acquired on-demand for a reasonable annual fee. Capital expenses became operational ones, and there was no refund given for returning them to their homes in good condition; the resulting system became, if anything, more brutal than its predecessor. (As well as much more suited to the labor needs of Northern factories, where they served the dual purpose of depressing the wages of competing white workers.)

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A labor camp from the late 19th century. From the archive of Douglas Blackmon, author of “Slavery by Another Name.” You can also watch the documentary based on this book online, or Ava DuVernay’s documentary 13th (which ties this in detail to present affairs) on Netflix.

As this system evolved into Jim Crow, the need for gratuitous violence from ordinary civilians by no means stopped. Lynchings began to rise sharply in the 1890’s, reaching a peak in the late 1910’s. These were opportunities for entire communities to participate in mass violence. Larger pogroms happened as well, the most famous probably being the 1921 Tulsa pogrom which killed somewhere between 39 and 300 people, displaced over 10,000, and completely destroyed the nascent Black middle-class neighborhood of Greenwood in a combined ground and air attack. And the requirement for common people to be involved in violence never abated: the brutal lynching of Emmett Till, for example, was sparked when a white woman said the 14-year-old boy had insulted or even attacked her — a story she later admitted she had entirely fabricated.

When mass violence doesn’t end, we should look at the people who were nominally reintegrated and ask what happened. In this case, as in the case of most domestic atrocities, nearly all of the population was involved in some way. The restructuring of slavery around criminal law in the post-13th Amendment world led to a particular emphasis within this: it was black criminality, and the danger they posed to the public (especially to white women) which justified harsh measures. This naturally led to the empowerment of police in particular to engage in virtually unlimited violence against Black communities.

The contrast between this history, and the history of the American military, is key to understanding one of the things that so frequently shocks retired soldiers and Marines who join police departments: that unlike in their previous experience, police departments have nothing resembling “rules of engagement,” and in fact are actively trained to use lethal force quite freely by regimes like the “Bulletproof Warrior” (whose training materials recently leaked). The military has been encouraged to develop strong discipline, both to maximize its effectiveness as a fighting force, and to maximize its ability to integrate into society; police departments have been encouraged to develop extreme autonomy among individual officers, especially in their use of violence, in order to maximize people’s obedience.

But as noted above, this reintegration (or lack thereof) didn’t simply affect police officers and slave overseers. Just as the violence of slavery and genocide pervaded American society, its aftereffects did, as well. People were initially accustomed to expecting violence in these contexts, and later to justifying why it needed to continue — even up to the present day. The need for lethal self-defense was a natural consequence, both of the (desired) continued violence against Black and Native communities, of the (imagined) violence from these communities, of the (actual) violence within these communities as they were excluded from the ordinary system of law, of the (narrative) violence which became part of the ordinary culture, stories, movies, and television, and of the (consequent) violence of the people who continued to suppress these communities against others, as well. This last type of violence is precisely the violence of failed reintegration: people who are encouraged to use deadly force on their own initiative part of the time don’t magically stop doing so when they go home.

In fact, I strongly suspect that this failure to reintegrate is the underlying cause of the violence which characterizes America. There’s good evidence that the prevalence of guns (often blamed for this) doesn’t actually explain these rates of violence; Norway, for example, has one-third as many guns per capita as the United States, but one-tenth the per capita homicide rate. Yet as the graph below shows, the US is a significant outlier among wealthy nations.

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Homicide rates per 100,000 people versus per-capita, purchasing power-adjusted GDP. The US is the bright red dot, having an adjusted GDP of $60,200 but a homicide rate typical of countries with half the income. The US number is likely a significant underestimate, however, since the UNODC (from whom these statistics come) deliberately excludes any killing ruled lawful from its statistics. Adjusting raw homicide counts using estimates from Killed by Police, the actual rate is likely closer to 5.3 per 100,000, rather than the 4.8 shown. The outlier at the far right, in case you’re wondering, is Qatar.

In fact, when we look at American cultural norms with respect to violence, we see norms which are much more characteristic of countries which have recently experienced either civil war or other major outbreaks of violence, than of countries which have experienced prolonged domestic peace.

I’m not sure how one would go about proving this — it’s awfully hard to measure a correlation when there’s no “control America” which didn’t experience the same history but is otherwise comparable — but it’s long been my suspicion that the unhealed wound of slavery, in particular, is at the root of the normalization of violence which manifests in everything from armed gangs, to militarized police, to school shootings.

So what’s the point?

This is something we should bear in mind: not only was this peace made only at the last extremity, but with very good reason, Nazis continue to be hunted to this day. The “success” of this example is not, in many ways, one we should try to emulate.

The reason for this article is, instead, to give you some language to help you think about, and ask questions about, the consequences of such reintegration, and its failure — and perhaps most importantly, to understand how our present society is the product of a comprehensive failure of the third kind, one where society attempted to continue the violence “under the hood” (pun intended) while having a nominal peace.

The immediate prompt for this article was when Sarah Kendzior noted that abuse of children is something which even openly authoritarian regimes tend to conceal not only from the public, but from most of their own forces, because people tend to react so viscerally and negatively to them. The difficulty of finding people willing and able to continue to engage in violence against civilians in the long term was even a major obstacle for the SS. To get a large organization to support pulling nursing children away from screaming mothers is, to put it mildly, not a small feat.

While discussing it on Twitter, the question of the future reintegration of ICE agents came up in passing. I returned to it here, in more depth, not to encourage their reintegration, but to highlight how the failure of the earlier reintegration is what led, in almost direct line, to the ease with which a force could be assembled to engage in behavior which shocks the conscience of nearly every human who encounters it.

We are not dealing with the question of peace in the future; we are dealing with the question of atrocities, here and now.

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Either political analysis of authoritarian regimes, or interesting facts about science, depending on my mood.

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