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Global Conflict Experts See Signs Of Potential Violence Around U.S. Election


For years, American human rights groups have monitored elections abroad, mostly in fledgling democracies or places where sectarian violence could erupt. Now, for the first time, some groups are focusing on the U.S. election. As NPR's Joel Rose reports, they're seeing warning signs of potential conflict or even violence ahead.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: Fifty years ago, Hrair Balian fled Lebanon, the country where he was born, to escape from civil war and political turmoil and landed in the U.S.

HRAIR BALIAN: I never imagined that in this country I would worry about the same things that I was worried when I lived in Lebanon.

ROSE: Balian directs the conflict resolution program at the Carter Center, started by former President Jimmy Carter, in part to ensure fair elections in the developing world. Balian has worked in the Balkans and former Soviet states, though never on a U.S. election until now. Balian told me he doesn't want to sound like an alarmist, but some of the things he sees happening in this country - they're pretty alarming.

BALIAN: What we fear is that guns, protests and elections do not mix well.

ROSE: Experts in global conflict see rising signs of potential violence around the election here. There's a good chance that no clear winner will emerge on election night and deep concern about what will happen next, especially if protesters and counter-protesters collide in the streets. The Carter Center is operating behind the scenes, working with local faith leaders in an effort to keep everyone calm, while other conflict resolution groups are also sounding the alarm.

Tim Phillips is the founder of the nonprofit Beyond Conflict. He's worked in places like South Africa and Northern Ireland and didn't think U.S. democracy would face the same problems.

TIM PHILLIPS: The United States had been promoting democratic elections and democracy around the world. And when we looked at our own problems, we thought, of course, we have some big issues. But we're, in a sense, immune from an us-versus-them mindset where there could be real conflict.

BALIAN: I thought I was dreaming. I thought I was having nightmares.

ROSE: Hrair Balian says he and other experts know the warning signs of potential violence from their experience around the world.

BALIAN: We look for early signs so that we can come up with early interventions before all hell breaks loose.

ROSE: Balian says he's watched with a growing sense of dismay as he recognized more and more of those early warning signs in the U.S. The first warning sign - growing polarization along racial and identity lines. The country was polarized politically, and then came this summer's national reckoning over racial justice as protests turned violent in Oregon, in Kentucky, in Minnesota and Wisconsin.


ROSE: In Kenosha, a teenager allegedly shot and killed two protesters this summer. That brings us to the second warning sign for conflict experts - when extremists start to take matters into their own hands. Those experts found it deeply alarming when the FBI said earlier this month that it had thwarted a plot by self-styled militias in Michigan to kidnap Governor Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat.


GRETCHEN WHITMER: I knew this job would be hard. But I'll be honest. I never could've imagined anything like this.

ROSE: A third warning sign is when political rivals seek to gain total power and cut out the other side. But experts say there are reasons for optimism, too. Tim Phillips says U.S. democracy, the oldest in the world, is still strong. And he believes Americans are actually not quite as divided as we think.

PHILLIPS: Are we going to see the levels of violence that I've seen in Northern Ireland or South Africa or Central America and Bosnia? I really don't think so. But that's not to diminish the real threat that acts of violence can have in this country.

ROSE: Phillips says there is still time to de-escalate tensions before all hell breaks loose. But that would require our elected leaders to denounce violence before it is too late.

Joel Rose, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF SYML'S "GIRL (PIANO VERSION)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Joel Rose is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers immigration and breaking news.