In previous articles I have described various factions likely to have more or less prominence in an environment of increased civil conflict in the US. In this one, I will discuss something more familiar in fiction, but less important in reality – the “rando”. Individuals and small groups acting as part of a domestic insurgency are a mainstay of right wing fiction, and the general idea permeates US fiction in general.
The United States has enough firearms in private civilian hands to equip every person capable of holding one twice over. In addition to the on-the-books ones, over the past decade discreet home manufacture of firearms (mostly AR-15 variants and Glock analogues) has become extremely common. Being a wealthy and well educated country, private machine shops are relatively common, as is knowledge about interesting nitrogen compounds and their assembly. It also has a unique gun culture that explicitly acquires arms with the expectation they may be used either to secure one’s personal safety or one’s political rights, potentially against some kind of government entity.
The combination of these things is often used in fiction as the setup for some sort of ragtag militia, leaderless resistance, or even “lone wolf” narrative, usually involving at some point the villains du jour filing neatly into a valley full of deer rifles never to return, corrupt politicians dramatically cured of their hypertension, or symbolic events or locations dissolving rapidly into their constituent parts. Lots of comeuppance all around. Few of these are very good, but many of them have at least some influence.
With extremely limited exceptions, the empirical record does not support the “lone wolf”, or less ominously the rando, as a decisive factor. US population dynamics likely exacerbate this. Let’s look at some of the track record.
The IRA’s final, successful campaign relied on centrally planned (and mostly low- or no-casualty) disruptions to UK commercial interests; direct attacks on occupying military forces (the various anti-German resistances of WWII; the NVA’s southern components in Vietnam; post WWII anti-Soviet insurgencies; post USSR Chechnya, etc) can certainly impose costs, but are mostly quelled with sufficient brutality and only appear successful when they act as auxiliaries to some sort of conventional force.
The Iraqi and particularly Afghan resistances to American occupation are the major counterexamples, but there are extreme differences from the domestic context. Rules of engagement for US soldiers deployed overseas are far more restrictive than those for domestic police in their routine duties, to say nothing of US paramilitaries on capture-kill missions. It’s unclear what game the US is actually playing in Afghanistan, but it appears to entail the willingness to absorb endless predominantly red casualties. On the other hand, the Soviets were not known for having a light touch, and were likewise driven out. The dynamic in Afghanistan is probably closest to the fictional depiction of quasi distributed insurgency; there is a metaphysical concept, or brand, of the “Taliban”, but it seems to be closer to the Crips in practice – the relevant entity for analysis is the dozen or so boys in any particular valley.
But when we talk about randos, we’re not talking about even Crips-level organization. The US’s ethnic gangs / militias have social hierarchies, attempt to control territory to various degrees, maintain arms and income producing enterprises – not Sadr City levels, but not nothing. They might not be good about it, but they try. The rando has none of this – they may or may not have a plan, but people driven to solo violence are by mere selection effect less likely to have their shit together. When they are broadly speaking competent in executing their plan, they tend not to have their desired macro-scale effect.
To a man, each of their respective manifestos rely on a sort of magical thinking around propaganda of the deed inspiring copycats (either directly or via overreaction by the target), eventually having a macro-scale effect. They are not totally wrong as to the first part – one of the barriers to violence is that until a certain point, no one conceptualizes certain patterns of violence as “a thing”. Before the 60s in the US, there was no such thing as the “urban guerilla”; flash forward to 1972 and there were over 1900 leftist bombings, hundreds of people living underground, political assassinations were commonplace, and so on. Apparently no one realized one could just buy some dynamite (high trust societies are a magical thing) and stick it in a Macy’s bathroom. Ditto the rise of drug gangs and even less organized Chicago-style shootings in the US – at some point there was a collective realization that one could just kill a man over turf, and the odds of being caught were low, especially compared to the local risk of allowing an affront to one’s honor.
But in the rando context, this gets into the fundamental bootstrap problem – the system is empirically able to absorb massive numbers of pinprick attacks (remember those 70s “urban guerillas”? Or consider how half the city politicians in eg Baltimore or urban Illinois or Albany end up being forcibly removed every couple years). And if there were large numbers of people who were in the abstract willing to Fight The Man and just didn’t realize how easy it was, then our prospective lone wolf should have met at least one comrade by this point, at which point they would be out of the scope of this analysis.
The thing is that “in the abstract, willing to Fight The Man” is a tiny, tiny, tiny number of people. Every meaningful deployment of force from the present day to prehistory has been by armed groups. The most that relatively isolated individuals have ever been able to accomplish has been a sort of low-level deterrence – walk through the wrong neighborhoods of the urban US, and eventually you might very well hear the ominous question – “who you know?”. Similarly, there has not been another Waco since April of 1995, and few publications are willing to assume the risk of printing pictures of Mohammed. These are reactions to very specific circumstances – Schelling points for distributed coordination. This is not the same thing as preventing broad, incrementally hostile actions on the part of the power structure. It is definitely not the same thing as affecting positive change, or replacing the existing power structure.
Notably, even these examples of specific deterrence often result in the actor in question violating the first rule of insurgency – force preservation. Simply put, they don’t get away with it, are not usually competent in execution, build nothing, usually accelerate nothing (at least not sufficiently to provoke muh counter-reaction, as opposed to making sure a bunch of their erstwhile fiends are rolled up), and at most delay events if there is a power structure actually devoted to accomplishing whatever they were trying to prevent. In exchange, they are dead or in prison, a warning to others.
Given the mass of empirical evidence on the effectiveness of even pairs of people versus randos in accomplishing anything, in any sphere of human endeavor beyond raw theory, there are very few plausible scenarios where their efforts are better placed coming up with better plans or more personal competency, as opposed to finding literally one other person that agrees with them. And if there are even two people involved in accomplishing a political end, by induction they constitute a political constituency, a political organization, and are capable of wielding some amount of political power – including in the Clausewitzian extension. One of the interesting aspects of these emergent organizations is that although they may be supposedly ideological in nature (although often not), their membership does not tend to be formed along ideological lines. More on them in a future article.