This is a true story. But it is not a story about the United States. Really, it’s not.
Once upon a time there was a country. It doesn’t matter for our purposes where it was, but it is important that this was a country of dreams… meaning that it dreamed itself into being, like so many other democracies. It rose from its steaming forests but – though it was now actual and corporeal – like dreams do, the dream country began to fade and evaporate.
This country split itself apart. Taxonomists have a saying, that you’re either a splitter or a joiner. It’s a funny saying, inadvertently splitting the monolithic taxonomists into shards. But taxonomists are just people, intent on organizing themselves into social groups, othering each other willy-nilly. Anyway, this country, its people, were no different. They created sides, and built ideological brick walls. That was smart, because the bricks could then be hurled over the divide, to bloody the other.
Anyway they split. Or perhaps they were split to begin with, or perhaps it was one dream shared by divided dreamers. This much will sound familiar, and therefore kind of funny, I suppose, as you think “Ah, this is the US he’s talking about.” But again I promise you, this story is not about us. And, yes, it is about a real country. I have been there, a poor backpacker dragging my 40 kilo bag of books, journals, sketch pads, and stinking dirty laundry through its museums, back alleys, and cheap hotels.
But as I said, the people of the dream country split themselves into groups. You would easily recognize them, so can I call them Alpha and Beta, just so you don’t get distracted by how funny-oddly-familiar the story is? By how this story – true story, Reader, true – seems tailor-made for a brief Modern American Political Reflection, yes? It gets worse. Or maybe yet funnier?
Alpha was in power, had been for perhaps half a lifetime, placed there by the people or anyway by a democratic process. One election cycle, however, two Alpha candidates split the ticket, which opened the door for a Beta candidate to slip into office, having won perhaps only 40% of the vote.
It is said of the Betas that the Religious Authorities supported them. And that these Authorities seem to have advocated violence against the Alphas. Reader, I hope this doesn’t shock you. Are you? Shocked, I mean? I am sorry, but I think if you remain a Reader – and I hope you do – you will, after not too long, learn that Religious Authority often turns to coercive means to safeguard the piety of the flock.
So, the Alphas were unseated, but during the next election cycle their candidate was assassinated. As is common is such cases, speculation and conspiracy theories abounded as to the motives and support network of the assassin. Outraged Alphas rioted in the cities, while neighbors murdered each other in the countryside. Or perhaps the murder only lit the fuse of compressed frustrations. Meanwhile, the Alphas formed militias, while the Betas had their military and added to that paramilitary partisans. The war that followed – to keep you in suspense, Reader, I’ll not use its real name but will call it The War – claimed perhaps 300,000 lives. The precise tally is not clear, did the Betas’ government-sponsored fighters score significantly higher than the Alphas’? It seems that much of violence took place in the countryside, anyway, and thus that poor farmers probably suffered most.
The War is well known – among people that care about such things – for the appalling and cruel forms the violence often took. Now, the Reader will rightly protest that all violence is appalling and cruel, and that it cannot be that one form of war is more despicable than another. And yet it is widely held that the personal form of violence inflicted, and the fact that violence was visited on non-combatants, women, children, infants, the unborn, sets The War apart from other such conflicts. Reader, I shy away from recounting these horrors to you and instead merely reflect that civil war brings hatred into close focus, so close that one might as well be looking back into one’s own eyes as the blow is delivered.
In any case, The War lasted for a decade. Though such processes are punctuated by battles, armistices, reconciliations, the punctuation marks seem to be restricted to commas and semicolons; there are no periods, no clear end. During that decade, a fascist took power and so terrified the other elites that the military staged a coup and placed a general in the presidency. It may seem odd to the Reader for a military dictator to use the term “president”, with all its democratic connotations and trappings but, dear Reader, remember that it is all too human to ever cast oneself in the role of hero. In any case, that fascist president was also eventually driven out by military coup d’etat.
After that second coup, the people – or at least their elite and military representatives – decided they’d had enough war and agreed to cooperate in governing, and that the presidency would alternate between Alpha and Beta. And so it did, for the decade and a half that Alpha and Beta had agreed upon.
Joke! A joke, oh Reader, and my apologies. I’m sure you know that there is no static happily ever after. The Alphas and Betas continued to disagree, but the violence of The War subsided. So, after many years and hundreds of thousands of deaths, this dream country returned to the unhappy but sometimes blood-free dream-state of affairs that is democracy. But I have elided the presence of a cousin, Gamma, that also fought against the Betas. Shortly after the end of The War, Gamma resumed the fight, and The Next War began, and – with its own flare ups and lulls – still continues to this day.
Other nations have let political division rend the fabric of democracy, before we took up the cause. They found that the penalty of such division is not merely government inaction or unilateral action, it is hatred, blood, and evil.
This story is a non-historiographic retelling of La Violencia, the war that wracked Colombia from 1948 to 1958 and beyond. The Liberals and Conservatives, and the Communists, allowed their religion- and class-stoked political divisions to spill into political assassination, and thence to riot, mayhem, and guerrilla and paramilitary war. But in fact, La Violencia itself is merely (merely!) an iteration of a previous post-independence Colombian civil war. And La Violencia did not end, but morphed into a war with insurgent groups such as the FARC.