The Fifth Horseman, accompanied by Massive Attacks of Disruption, struck with a vengeance following the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis last week. Nationwide protests erupted. Many were not peaceful.
Riots and violence broke out and still rage. Just a few blocks west of where we live in Washington, D.C., houses and businesses on Wisconsin Avenue were vandalized and looted. In one sense, these protests and violent outbreaks were not new.
In 1965, Los Angeles was on fire over racial injustice. 1968 and the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy provoked rage, protests and widespread violence. In Los Angeles, Watts was ground zero; during the Democratic National Convention, Chicago was stricken. Many will recall the Rodney King beating, also in L.A., in 1992. And murders and deaths of young black men at the hands of police and quasi-vigilantes mounted over the past decades.
Today is far different from 1968 for three basic reasons. First, protests came amidst a pandemic, the first in a century, and massive unemployment. They have lasted much longer. It is likely a substantial number of those who committed acts of violence and looting were out of work.
Second, perhaps is was no accident that sitting in the Oval Office was the most disruptive president in American history. Even supporters of President Donald Trump grimaced at one of his tweets linking "looting with shooting," meaning that mob violence needs to be met with overwhelming force. At these and other times of violence and massive protests, prior presidents acted to calm and not intensify the turmoil. That is not in Trump's character or play book.
Third, in the age of new MAD, think how these protests can be magnified by social media. The 2011 Egyptian Revolution and the events leading to massive protests in Tahrir Square that ultimately overthrew longtime President Hosni Mubarak were spontaneously organized on social media. Cellphones, not rifles and bayonets, became the most effective weapons forcing change. Were today's protesters so organized, the consequences are not difficult to predict.
As the Million Man March on Washington in 1995 was peaceful, could another such organized protest become violent fueled by social media? How prepared are local, state and federal governments for that and other types of massively destructive protests and riots? Perhaps the answer is no better than the preparations for COVID-19.
After Sept. 11, police forces took on anti-terrorist roles. Police forces became militarized. Distinguishing between the appearance and equipment of police SWAT teams and SEALs and special forces would become difficult, if not impossible.
In the 1960s, National Guard units called into action were neither trained nor equipped for quelling popular unrest. That condition persists today. Since Sept. 11, many Guard units were serving on active duty in Afghan and Iraqi war zones and not dealing with riots and protests. The killings at Kent State University by nervous Guardsman in May 1970 were tragic examples of how deadly unpreparedness could be.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the United States was waging a losing war in Vietnam. The country was increasingly and bitterly divided over that war. Protests and some violence were commonplace, exacerbated by other events. Only after the United States withdrew from Vietnam did healing begin to take place.
Will the dissipation of coronavirus, or the invention of treatments and vaccines have an equivalent healing effect as the end of that war? Or will these and even larger disruptions consume the country? The most significant differences with that period are the potential power of social media today and the disruptive instincts of the president.
Tahrir Square and other so-called colored revolutions relied on social media to organize. The Internet provides an extraordinary platform to manufacture rumors, false stories and conspiracy theories to provoke and induce panic, fear and further unrest. As politics now rely more on these tools than on traditional television, radio and newspapers, why would protesters not follow suit?
ANTIFA (anti-fascist groups on the far left) and domestic neo-Nazi and extremists of the extreme right are children of this age. While public protests matter, the relative ease of increasing the size, number and the ability to disrupt by social media is apparent. Generating malicious propaganda is also not difficult.
Ironically, this what Russia has been doing for about a decade. China has followed suit. The Fifth Horseman and MAD are upon us. And that rider surely can make inroads into bringing these protests, disturbances and riots to an unprecedented level of disruption. But are we prepared? I fear not. Harlan Ullman is UPI's Arnaud de Borchgrave Distinguished Columnist, senior adviser at the Atlantic Council and author of the upcoming book, "The Fifth Horseman: To Be Feared, Friended or Fought in a MAD-Driven Age."