I got into an extended twitter discussion yesterday about the 1992 LA riots. Why? Because that event helped to inform much of my thinking about ethnic conflict and because I see in Ferguson some key similarities despite Ferguson not being a riot (unless that is what the police are doing). How so?
The event that triggered the riots of 1992 was not the televised beating of Rodney King but the acquittal of the cops who beat him. This demonstrated to many that the cops essentially had immunity, that the police were a combatant rather than a relatively impartial adjudicator of disputes. As an IR person, it seemed to me that it meant that there was an absence of authority in LA and that the area become much like International Relations. That alliances formed among those who shared a common enemy despite years of conflict between them--the LA gangs, especially the Bloods and the Crips. That arms races started to spiral as people went to the gun stores since they could not rely on the cops to defend them.
I had been thinking about the ethnic security dilemma before that as I developed that approach preparing for my comprehensive exams in 1991, studying for IR and the Comparative Politics. I was certainly on this train of though before Barry Posen had his piece published in 1993 (wow, 1200 cites! Kids, always publish your good ideas as fast as possible!). The essential idea is that without government, groups compete as if they are states, where fears of pre-emption leads one to pre-empt first. Efforts at self-defense are seen as offensive to others and they react and the spiral, as Waltz and Jervis argue so well, develop.
The problem with Posen's depiction, besides scooping me, is that it is so very focused on the military aspects of the security dilemma in the utter absence of the state, of the government. In International Relations, world government does not exist. In domestic politics, the government still exists even its authority is tainted and/or its capabilities are weakened. So, rather than disappearing and poof there is IR writ small, the state is a key actor--a combatant in many cases, a battleground in others. That the ethnic security dilemma is political before or as the conflict turns violent. That competition to control the state or evade it can erode the state and its capacity, leading to violence. Which then implies that political institutions can make things better or worse. I worked this out for a conference that focused on the spread of ethnic conflict that ultimately led to the first (and probably best) edited volume in which my work has appeared.
My dissatisfaction with the way the ethnic security dilemma lost the state led me to organize a conference a decade later to figure out what security means in civil wars. In the course of conversations with the participants and in writing with Marie-Joelle Zahar, I focused on the challenge of deterrence and assurance. That one of the core jobs of governments is deter crime-breaking, including rebellion. But that deterrence only works if the populace is assured that the state itself is not a threat. If the state engages in violence against those who are engaged in peaceful behavior, including protests, then deterrence breaks down. The threat built into deterrence is "don't do x or I will hurt you" and people tend to forget that this is a promise by the deter-er not to hurt the deter-ee if the deter-ee behaves as desired. Assurance/restraint is a fundamental part of the equation, as is the tolerability of the status quo.
Alas, the book is too expensive and we did not come up with great solutions, so it did not make a huge splash. But I have been thinking much about this of late, thanks to events in Iraq, Ukraine, Gaza, and now .... Ferguson. I develop that set of comparisons in my latest CIC piece so I will not re-hash the entire thing. For Ferguson, the key is that the police seem to be acting without much in the way of restraint. That an African-American boy was shot while submitting--that he had been compelled/deterred (despite being guilty of nothing but walking in the street). That the protests have been met with much more force than one would otherwise expect (even if some elements of the community have engaged in violence).
To be clear, we do not have all of the facts yet about what the police in Ferguson are doing and what they have done. But the larger pattern would make it easy for African-Americans to draw the lesson that no matter how they behave, they will be shot by the police. This would be really awful, as insecurity and fear can trigger behavior that makes things worse--which is the heart of the ethnic security dilemma and a key aspect of the deterrence/assurance dynamic.
Oh, and if one really wants to immerse in the comparative analysis of riots, read Donald Horowitz's Deadly Ethnic Riot. As always, he is a font of testable hypotheses and presents an encyclopedic knowledge of cases.