October 2, 2020 - Podcast

Episode 40—Post-political violence and why things burn

As the November presidential election nears, many have expressed concern that allegations of a rigged election could lead to potential violence similar to what has been seen in other countries. But Ore Koren, assistant professor of political science at Indiana University, says having a contested election in times of crisis is by no means a guarantee of violence. So, what is the likelihood of election-related violence in November? When trying to predict election violence, Koren says there are three relevant factors. First, strong political institutions are especially effective in reducing the risk of violence, he says. Second, research finds that mass political violence usually happens in countries that have no capacity to prevent it. Finally, Koren says an especially strong predictor of election violence is a history of armed political conflict. While post-election violence is not impossible in 2020 America, Koren says data suggests it is unlikely. All in all, in nearly 13,000 political events in the U.S. between May 24 and Sept. 19, 2020, only 12 people were killed, nine of them by the police, in addition to three police officers who were killed by the extremist group. Considering the number of people involved in the recent Black Lives Matter and COVID-19 protests, and the fact that many were heavily armed, these casualty figures are surprisingly low, Koren says. Koren says researchers cannot perfectly predict political violence. Their analyses rely on the past. While Koren says some concern is valid, it is important to remember that there is a big difference between using a call to arms to mobilize voters and instill fear in the other party’s supporters, and staging a post-election insurrection, which could subject its instigators to charges of sedition, if not high treason. Ultimately, Koren says the three factors used by political scientists suggest that fears of widespread violence by vigilantes and activists during and after Election Day should be treated as fears, not as a probable outcome.

While some Americans’ tempers are rising around the election, temperatures outside are dropping, resulting in people turning to electric heaters, blankets and fireplaces. While many modern materials are less combustible than they used to be, what makes a material fireproof? Bill Carroll, adjunct professor of chemistry at IU, says the term fireproof is actually a misnomer, because almost anything containing carbon, if hot enough, can combust and catch fire. Fire resistant and flame retardant are more accurate terms, he says. When used properly, these fire protective measures can interrupt the burning process. For instance, gasoline contains lots of carbon and hydrogen, is volatile so it can evaporate easily and is highly combustible. A plastic milk bottle also contains lots of carbon and hydrogen, but is a solid, so it is more difficult to ignite, but is not fire resistant. In contrast, a fire-resistant material, such as the stone-like kitchen countertops manufactured from plastic and non-combustible filler such as alumina, doesn't burn easily. Because it contains rock, it is less like fuel and is also more difficult to bring to high temperature. Carroll says fuel and heat are two of the four sides of the fire pyramid, with each side representing an element necessary for fire. The other sides are oxygen and a sustainable chemical reaction. Most materials — aside from rocks and metals that are actually fireproof — can be made more or less combustible only by eliminating one or more sides of the fire pyramid, he says. Flame retardant use has mushroomed since the middle of the last century and many materials are more fire safe now than they were; however, some flame retardants have sparked controversy over the past few decades because of potential toxicity, Carroll says. So, can fire resistant materials and flame retardants be relied upon for fire safety? Carroll says they do work well, but think of them as the second line of defense. Although it may seem like rather simple advice, keep close watch on candles, and carefully tend to stoves and other fire sources in the kitchen, he says. Put simply, don't have a fire where you don't want a fire in the first place.