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,” and police had permission in advance to use pepper spray.
Much of the 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 who are determined to control them can do so.
That’s good to know. 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 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 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 Donald Trump has not been normalized by anyone. The media treat 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.
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.
Much of the debate over antifa has focused on whether the white supremacists on the other side are worse. It seems impossible, in fact, to write a column on antifa without noting 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 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 rights to peaceably assemble and speak their minds. Those rights are not restricted to good people with morally just opinions and majority support.
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.
If we have to spend $600,000 to ensure 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.
Megan McArdle is a Bloomberg View columnist. Reach her by email at email@example.com.