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The reality behind 'Civil War' and the possibility of a real second civil war


In the near future, the U.S. president has given himself a third term. He's disbanded the FBI. America has broken into various factions that are engaged in armed conflict. It's the premise of one of the buzziest films of the year, the A24 thriller "Civil War," directed by British filmmaker Alex Garland. The dystopian thriller imagines a near future in which a deeply divided United States is violently caught in, well, a civil war.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Are you guys aware there's, like, a pretty huge civil war going on all across America?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) We just try to stay out. With what we see on the news, seems like it's for the best.

LIMBONG: The film may be fiction, but it has many viewers and pundits thinking about the parallels to reality in a United States that does often feel more and more polarized. But just how close is the film's reality to our own? To unpack that question, we called Amy Cooter. She's a director of research at the Center on Terrorism, Extremism and Counterterrorism at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies.

Amy, welcome to the program.

AMY COOTER: Thanks for having me.

LIMBONG: How much of this is, like, art-is-life, life-is-art film? Should we be wary of reading too much into the perils of real life?

COOTER: I think that it represents some real undercurrents that we have in the United States. I don't think that civil war is imminent, but I think there are some people who wish we would have one and wish that they could be effectively culture soldiers to reenact a civil order that they see as better for them and their families.

LIMBONG: When you say some people, who are those people?

COOTER: The groups I study tend to be folks who are militia members on the extreme end of the spectrum, or other folks who believe that some version of society that they believe existed in the past is better than what we have in our modern day, and they should do something to try to move us back to that past format.

LIMBONG: Most Americans do not foresee a civil war according to recent polls, but more than 40% of Americans think civil war is at least somewhat likely in the next decade. Is there a realistic scenario that could lead the U.S. to at least the verge of a civil war?

COOTER: I certainly hope not. I hope that our federal government, our states' governments, remain organized enough that armed militant groups who try to stir up various sorts of trouble can be controlled within the letter of the law. However, I think we are at a moment of extreme political division that may get worse before it gets better, and there are certainly some people who believe that they and their families are going to be put in a position where they have to defend themselves, whether it's against the government itself or against other factions that they see as being opposed to their interests.

LIMBONG: Does history here have any lessons that could be instructive to understanding the threat of civil war in this country?

COOTER: I think that as a sociologist, we tend not to be super optimistic. But one note of optimism that I do try to latch onto is that we've had moments of extreme divisiveness in our country before extreme political polarization, and so far, at least, democracy has won out and become increasingly inclusive over time. I think there are many more people who are pro-democracy who want to make this country a better place than there are small factions who want to be disruptive for everyone.

LIMBONG: Yeah. That's interesting. In your work, do you ever think about highlighting these groups gives them an outsized voice when we're looking at the raw numbers of people here?

COOTER: It's a concern that all of us who work in extremism and related studies have, and yet we also see that these groups have the outsized potential for harm. So if we look at the extreme factions, what our goal is is to try to understand the real risks of violence, to prevent them and also simultaneously understand that many times, they are simply the more vocal factions of folks who believe very similar things.

Just to reference the January 6 case, a lot of those folks weren't involved in formal, organized groups, but shared the same ideology, the same urgency for action. And frankly, a lot of folks had taken for granted the need to study militias and other groups before then because they assumed they were just outliers, that no other groups or no other individuals sort of agreed with them. And we were smacked with the reality that that's just not the case.

LIMBONG: Yeah. The movie depicts armed factions fighting not so much against, like, a central government, but sometimes against each other. A central thesis of the film is that, like in war, who's on what side gets kind of blurry. Do you think that's a fair representation of real-life fringe extremist groups and how they operate?

COOTER: I do. There is a lot of constant infighting, not usually violent, but very strong infighting across all of these group boundaries. And they would be a lot more powerful if they had an easier time getting along with each other. It's also the case that we have seen an increasing trend in groups opposed to these particular beliefs or this particular political spectrum. And hypothetically, if we're dealing with a world where some kind of pockets of violence, whether it's civil war or not, were occurring across the country, it's highly likely that some people would oppose these groups for various different reasons and also fight them. It wouldn't necessarily just be the government.

LIMBONG: Yeah. So these extremist groups, you've cited some that say they are ready to inflict violence. How much of a threat are they?

COOTER: This is something that's really hard to quantify. We know that even among militia groups, it is a minority of militia groups, a minority of militia members who are really proactively intending to do harm. The ones who are, as we said, can do outsized harm to society as a whole, but they tend to plan their actions amongst themselves. They've gotten a bit more understanding of monitoring and other things that happen online in recent years, and they're really hard to track and monitor.

LIMBONG: Do you think the U.S. government is adequately prepared?

COOTER: That's hard to say. My personal instinct is no. I think that various different government agencies have done more to be prepared since January 6. But I'm also sensing sort of a belief that that was a one-off occurrence, and therefore we don't have to worry about these folks so much anymore. We aren't really expecting another January 6, but I think we're underestimating the risk that different state buildings may face or different politicians as individuals may face or even different flashpoints of violence around elections or school board happenings as they continue to move forward this year.

LIMBONG: Amy Cooter is director of research at the Center on Terrorism, Extremism and Counterterrorism at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies. Her forthcoming book is "Nostalgia, Nationalism, And The U.S. Militia Movement." Thank you so much for joining us.

COOTER: Thanks so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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