The term lynching is an extrajudicial one which refers to the killing of one or more individuals by a group of individuals. It is most often used to characterize informal public executions by a mob in order to punish an alleged transgressor, to punish a convicted transgressor, or to intimidate people.
In its strictest sense, this practice targets individuals within society, but is it possible for society as a whole — with its myriad laws and institutions — to suffer lynching at the hands of the disaffected, disgruntled and disillusioned within it? Does calling such an act a “revolution” ennoble and even legitimize it, making it more attractive and more palatable than the more acrid and treasonous term as “insurrection”?
If such an attempt is successful in respect to destroying society, causing it to become moribund and then to disintegrate into anarchy, is that not the lynching of society? If the casting of ballots and the reasonable rulings made by established courts of law are vilified and eschewed, for example, with calls for and attempts made towards their destruction, is that not akin to the lynching of individuals without due process in an ideological and practical sense? With the white racist extremists at large, posing the greatest domestic threat to the United States according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (F.B.I.), is the whole country not on the verge of being lynched by such criminal elements?
Is democracy, as we have come to know it, now teetering back and forth on the scaffold? If so, whence all this or why all this? Who is responsible or is to blame? Perhaps a short history of the Jamaican mongoose can help to shed some light on some if not all of those questions.
The animal called the mongoose is not indigenous to the country of Jamaica. The species was brought into the island in 1872 from India to control black, grey and brown rats on sugarcane plantations. With the passage of time it began to eat all the snakes and frogs. Soon it began to create problems for the farmers themselves. There is, for example, a Jamaican folk song which, humorously, talks about the creature entering into a farmer’s chicken coop and stealing his chickens. What aspirational blessing the creature brought at the beginning had mutated into unimaginable blight later on. As the colonists then faced the dilemma of the mongoose so do modern Jamaican agriculturalists.
As I recalled Jamaica’s perennial problems with the mongoose I began to think about how the horrific and the inhumane practice of lynching, which was never a part of the canon of U.S. law — one which violates the U.S. Constitution, the Bill of Rights and the idea of “due process” — has created unexpected, unwanted and astronomical problems for modern American society. What was once employed by whites to intimidate and to control those who were a part of the slave population, especially after Emancipation, and which was also used as summary justice against some of their fellow whites, like the mongoose, has metastasized into a national problem which now poses an existential threat to the nation — not just to people of color.
The white, racist, extralegal, retributory acts of violence are no longer confined to the obscure backwoods of the Antebellum and Confederate South, on through to the Jim Crow segregation and Civil Rights movement eras. It has now taken center stage, and is becoming normalized at an alarming rate — even among members of the previous and the current Congress who sought and who still seek to nullify the results of the 2020 elections. The F.B.I. has reported that white extremist groups pose the biggest domestic threat to the country.
White extremist racism is not new to the American socio-political landscape as the Ku Klux Klan and the many enraged white racist rabbles, the latter being comprised of individuals who did not possess pre-planned and long standing agendas for maintaining racial superiority, were precursors to the illegal white militia groups which now threaten to undo the country today. Like the mongoose, the ideology behind lynching threatens everyone and the institutions that were established to protect and defend the U.S. Constitution. In fact, the forces of extralegal law have been as weeds in the political landscape from as far back as the time of slavery.
The slave oligarchy of the South, even before the Civil War, was always in tension with those who championed liberal democratic principles. When the political and economic interests of that recalcitrant oligarchy felt threatened by such noble principles and parties the Confederate States were formed, not just to defend the peculiar institution of slavery, which is anti-democratic in nature, but also to destroy the very foundations of the Union. It bears repeating at this juncture that it was the forces of the Confederacy which fired the first shot on Fort Sumpter, manned by federal troops, in Charleston, South Carolina on April 12, 1861. Ever since then, the institutions of the U.S. Government have been under assault, both in subtle and overt ways, to undermine its laws and its agendas.
Since Reconstruction the survivors and the heirs of the Old South have even used the U.S. Congress and the U.S. Supreme Court against the rest of the country to their own advantage, manipulating them here and there when it was convenient and possible for them to do so. One striking example of this was their abuse of federal laws to help establish and maintain the Jim Crow racial segregation laws. When such forces could not get their own way in the Congress and in the courts then they sought to lynch the system, so to speak, through violence and intimidation. Schools and universities were stormed, public transportation was attacked, and so were the federal forces sent in to restore law and order. Churches and homes were bombed. The history of the lynching of the aspirations enshrined in The Bill of Rights has been a long and a bloody one. What we have been witnessing now, therefore, is lynching run amok, brought in to tackle one thing and becoming a specter for other things — where even white people themselves are not spared, nor are our revered political traditions and institutions.
The list of such lynchings is long, but one only needs to recall such notable ones as the bombing attack led by Timothy McVeigh in Oklahoma City in 1995, that killed 168 people and which injured more than 680 others; the kidnapping plot and the threat on the life of the governor of the State of Michigan, Gretchen Whitmer, and to her administration in 2020; the infamous insurrection at the Capitol building in 2021; and then, just recently, the plot uncovered to destroy electrical power stations in the city of Baltimore by two white racial extremists.
Lynchings are no longer just physical acts of violence against people and their property, but also assaults against and assassinations of democratic ideals. Our election systems and processes before, during and after the 2020 election cycle, which comprise the bedrock of American democracy, have come under attack in recent years as was stated before. As citizens became devalued and denigrated prior to their lynching so have our political traditions and institutions. Attempts to hijack and to manipulate how things are done, in order to feed the warped flights of fancy, and the psychotic and unfounded fears of some in society, regardless of established laws and rules of morality, are tantamount to lynching.
The Federal Government must accept some responsibility with respect to the continued lynching of our citizens and of our systems. Despite desperate pleas and strenuous and protracted efforts to outlaw the practice of lynching, the powerful racist ideologues within state legislatures and the U.S. Congress vigorously thwarted and adroitly sidestepped them all. Though laws were already fully and firmly formed to address all of the besetting and nagging ills which would inevitably arise in society — both of a civil and a criminal nature — there were those who wanted to be able to continue to terrorize the weak and the powerless at whim, and to inflict mayhem and death at will and with impunity.
African-American journalist and social activist Ida B. Wells fought tooth and nail for anti-lynching legislation. On May 29, 2022, after the passage of about 124 years, after she and a few Congressmen visited President McKinley at the White House while on her crusade against lynchings, and after nearly 200 attempts by Congress to pass a federal anti-lynching law over the course of the 20th century, President Biden signed the Emmett Till Anti-lynching Act into law, making the act a federal hate crime.
The law carries a maximum sentence of 30 years in prison for anyone who conspires to commit an act of lynching. It is defined as the public killing of an individual without due process that results in serious injury or death. After a century, when the bad psychology of the American mind was winked at and coddled by the Federal government, is it now too little and too late for reform? Is the country’s illness terminal?