‘By Any Means Necessary’ on an Upswing? How to Stop Campus Violence

A major uptick in violence on college campuses has been reported lately, concerning many over whether violence as a means of protest is now in vogue after a long dormant state. Is there a way to put an end to campus violence? Former Sen. Jim Talent has some ideas.

But first to recap a recent disturbing episode: You may have heard the story about Charles Murray, the famous social scientist who was invited to Middlebury College to speak and a mob broke out, threatening him and sending one of his hosts, Professor Allison Stanger, to the hospital.

Apparently, students at the liberal arts school were afraid of Murray’s words. He had written the book Coming Apart, The State of White America, 1960-2010, several years back, which premised that white America, like other racial and ethnic groups, is starkly divergent as a result of disparate wealth levels. The book description reads:

Drawing on five decades of statistics and research, Coming Apart demonstrates that a new upper class and a new lower class have diverged so far in core behaviors and values that they barely recognize their underlying American kinship—divergence that has nothing to do with income inequality and that has grown during good economic times and bad.

The top and bottom of white America increasingly live in different cultures, Murray argues, with the powerful upper class living in enclaves surrounded by their own kind, ignorant about life in mainstream America, and the lower class suffering from erosions of family and community life that strike at the heart of the pursuit of happiness. That divergence puts the success of the American project at risk.

Murray has been touring around the country discussing this book since its release. But college students at Middlebury decided that Murray needed to be shut down since he is so clearly (sarcasm) a “white supremacist.”

Murray says he was deeply shaken by the events that transpired, not because of the accusation, which he has confronted before, nor because of a protest of his speech, which is also not new to him. Murray said his fear stemmed from the animalistic behavior of the students.

Many looked like they had come straight out of casting for a film of brownshirt rallies. In some cases, I can only describe their eyes as crazed and their expressions as snarls. Melodramatic, I know. But that’s what they looked like.

Murray called for the university to inflict severe punishment on the students who behaved with such mob mentality, not because he was the subject of the attack, but because it is morally wrong and ultimately dangerous to normalize such behavior by letting it slide. Malcolm X popularized Jean-Paul Satre’s term “by any means necessary,” which predicated that violence is a fair tactic for protest. But even Malcolm X believed that violence is not necessary if the ends can be achieved through another method.

That’s where former Sen. Jim Talent comes in. Talent recently wrote that he thought America had already reached the point in which violence is never necessary as a means of political protest.

No one’s ideas should be shut out or shut down because of mob violence. Our people should not have to risk life and limb, or the destruction of property or property rights, because they want to speak or hear others speak.

But since it has evidently become popular again to use violence as protest (there seem to be plenty of examples of late), Talent says it’s time for government to get involved.

The government is not helpless to protect this right. Controlling the mob is something that governments have known how to do for millennia. In fact, if “controlling the mob” were a class in political science, it would be a survey course, part of “Government 101.”

And if local governments are unable or unwilling to protect the right to free speech on campus from the mob, state authorities should intervene and bring the full force of state law, and state resources, to bear.

In short, what is needed here is a classic exercise of the government’s police power, which belongs in the first instance to state government. So let’s not talk about the Justice Department intervening in this area. This is a job for the governments of the several states; in fact, it is an opportunity for the states to show that freedoms still matter, and that the law is still capable of defending them.

Talent offered a very legislative approach to coming up with rules about disorderly disruptions of speech on college campuses, including mandatory jail time for a first-time misdemeanor conviction, or a felony conviction for second offenses.

He also called for laws that require “automatic termination of any state employee, or expulsion of any student at a state university, convicted of violating the new statute, even if the conviction is a misdemeanor and regardless of whether the state employee has tenure or other civil-service protections.”

Talent also listed law enforcement training, special prosecutors, and other solutions in his piece.

Some of these solutions may seem severe, but Talent’s point, like Murray’s, is that failure to do anything is allowing the problem to grow.

Every time one of these episodes occurs, dozens of columns are written decrying them. That is good as far as it goes, but at a certain point it looks like hand wringing. The right response to speech is more speech, but the right response to violence against speech is not just verbal condemnation but strong laws, carefully written and stringently enforced.

We are not defenseless in the face of violence. This isn’t 1929, and America isn’t the Weimar Republic. Nor should our people have to rely on organizing their own self-defense. We don’t need anarchists and vigilantes fighting it out on the grounds of our universities. But that’s what we’re going to get, unless those who have the authority, and therefore the responsibility, take firm action to protect their people in the exercise of their rights.

Political speech is one thing, and shouldn’t be shut down, but violence is entirely another matter. Are new laws needed to curtail this particular type of violence?