ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
The U.S. has had three alarming incidents in a matter of days - the shooting at a synagogue in Pittsburgh, another at a supermarket in Louisville, Ky., and the bomb scare, suspicious packages mailed to prominent Democrats. These raise the question - are we entering a period of increased political violence in the country? NPR's Tim Mak has our story.
TIM MAK, BYLINE: Last year, after a shooter opened fire on Republican lawmakers at a baseball practice outside Washington, a CBS News poll found that 73 percent of Americans felt the tone of the political debate encourages violence. Carolyn Lukensmeyer is the head of the National Institute for Civil Discourse, formed after another shooting injured Congresswoman Gabby Giffords in 2011. The incident killed six and wounded 13.
CAROLYN LUKENSMEYER: I have to say, Tim, I've been surprised at the number of times where we're in - we're holding a discussion. We're holding a conversation across differences, and someone will actually say that they believe we could come to a civil war again in the United States.
MAK: But then she said many people back off from their initial conclusions.
LUKENSMEYER: They do say, no, I don't really believe that we'll have a civil war, but I find some of what I see happening frightening enough to think of it that way.
MAK: Modern civil conflicts don't have to involve marching armies or Pickett's Charge. Conflicts emerge when episodes of political violence become more sustained. So could it happen in our era? Here's Lukensmeyer again.
LUKENSMEYER: I came of age during the Vietnam War. So I came of age in a time in which differences on policy issues did lead to violent civil protest, that did lead to blood in the streets. So I - do I believe this is possible? It's part of my own life experience.
MAK: And the concept of a civil war is seeping out into the open, especially on the right. "The Civil War On America's Horizon" reads a headline in last month's The American conservative. And on townhall.com, a Trump supporter imagined how a civil war would turn out in "Why Democrats Would Lose The Second Civil War, Too." The extreme fringe has also picked up on this notion. Here's how one anonymous person framed a threat earlier this year to The New York Times' Ken Vogel. Vogel saved the voicemail and shared it on Twitter.
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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: You are the enemy of the people, and although the pen might be mightier than the sword, the pen is not mightier than the AK-47. And just remember, Ken, there's nothing civil about a civil war.
MAK: And experts on civil wars in foreign nations are now seeing worrying similarities here at home. Mike Jobbins works for Search for Common Ground, a nonprofit that tries to reduce political violence abroad in places like Burundi, Congo and Yemen.
MIKE JOBBINS: Prior to some of these conflicts that erupted, you see a drop in the capacity to deal with one another and to focus on one sort of prevailing identity and a sense that you can't necessarily interact or work together with someone from a different identity group. That's something we see here in the U.S. as we look at some of the partisan political divisions.
MAK: The way to prevent disagreements from becoming violence, according to experts in civil conflict, is to be more open to those with whom we disagree.
JOBBINS: The biggest challenge that many people have in their own lives is really taking the first step to not - when you disagree with someone, to listen first.
MAK: That's Jobbins again.
JOBBINS: I think as you look at the U.S. today, we're entering a period of conflict. But, you know, even if conflict is inevitable, violence is not.
MAK: Both the way we talk about politics and the way we listen about politics, these experts say, have a profound influence on the direction of this country. Tim Mak, NPR News, Washington.
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