WASHINGTON – Last week, conservative Ben Shapiro gave a speech. At Berkeley. And all across America, people watched their screens to see what sort of violence would erupt.
Reality was anticlimactic. Law enforcement was out in force, at an estimated price tag of $600,000. Concrete barriers were erected to hold back the liberal “antifa” (anti-fascist), and police obtained permission in advance to use pepper spray. Much of campus was locked down and cleared out. Nine people were arrested. And so, Shapiro arrived, gave his speech, and departed without the mayhem we’ve become accustomed to seeing at such appearances. And collective relief was sighed.
But how relieved should we be that this is what it takes to maintain order in the face of … a speech? On the one hand it shows that even in the heart of antifa territory, police and authorities that are actually determined to control them can do so. That’s good to know (and gives the lie to chicken authorities who would give antifa a heckler’s veto). And yet, those authorities could be forgiven for feeling daunted, even aggrieved, when they realize that every speaker antifa doesn’t like means vast sums, and considerable effort, expended on turning your public spaces into a demilitarized zone.
I don’t have an ironclad date for when antifa became a recognizable, and destructive, force in our politics. But I really began to notice them around the time of President Donald Trump’s election, when I saw people defending their actions on the grounds that they were trying to stop Trump from being “normalized.” It was argued that protesting-as-usual — show up, mill around for a while, chant a bit, and then go home to see how much news coverage you got — was inadequate to our uniquely dangerous historical moment. Stronger action was called for.
I think it’s safe to say that Trump has not been normalized by anyone. The media treats him with deep contempt — mostly earned, I’d argue, but still not the normal way you expect to see a president portrayed. Foreign leaders sure don’t seem to think he is normal, and nor do the bureaucracy or the courts. And partisans on both sides are behaving distinctly abnormally. They do not see themselves as arguing over policy or even values, but as engaged in an existential battle between good and evil, with Trump as the avatar for one side or another.
But the process of not normalizing Trump has instead normalized a lot of other things, bad ones. Like public disorder. Like persistent, pervasive anxiety that often looks like mass hysteria. Like people on both sides who try to minimize the illiberal tactics of the radicals on their own side by pointing mostly to the offenses of the other. (Yes, Trump, I’m looking at you. And also at the folks who held light-hearted debates about whether it was okay to sucker-punch Richard Spencer.)
Much of the debate over antifa has focused on whether the white supremacists on the other side are worse. It seems to be impossible, in fact, to write a column on antifa without noting, at length, that they are not nearly as bad as the neo-Nazis who converged on Charlottesville. And indeed, they are not.
But how does that justify antifa’s tactics? It’s not as if the police are unable, or unwilling, to deal with white supremacists who commit violent acts. We may wish that they had gotten to those people soon enough to prevent tragedies like the killing in Charlottesville, but it’s not as if antifa is a crack team of investigators who can stop crimes before they happen. The only things they can stop, and the police cannot, are things that aren’t crimes: notably, people exercising their First Amendment rights to peaceably assemble and speak their minds.
Those rights are not restricted to good people with morally just opinions and majority support. We hold them because we are in the U.S., a nation unified by the freedoms we all share.
Over 200 years, many people have suggested ways in which we might be better off without freedom of speech, or religion, or assembly — or any of the other rights enumerated in the nine other initial amendments. The Bill of Rights is still here, and those people are mostly forgotten. But someone new always comes along to suggest that some of those rights should be eliminated, or at least amended so that they don’t protect bad people who are too dangerous to have rights.
That’s normal. What should never be normal is what we are now witnessing: those folks appointing themselves a freelance constitutional convention, editing out the rights they find vexing, and enforcing their new rules with the power of their fists. But that is what has happened.
If we have to spend $600,000 to ensure that these people cannot arrogate to themselves powers we won’t even allow our government, then that’s probably a price worth paying. What we cannot afford to do is become inured to how outrageous it is. Every time it happens, we have to remind ourselves that all this security is the price we’re paying to protect ourselves from thieves who want to steal our constitutionally guaranteed freedoms. And that it is possible to once again live in a world where this is not normal.
Megan McArdle is a Bloomberg View columnist. She wrote for the Daily Beast, Newsweek, the Atlantic and the Economist. She is the author of “The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well Is the Key to Success.”