On Wednesday morning, a Trump-hating Bernie Sanders volunteer shot five people at a Republican practice for the annual congressional baseball game. One of them was the third-ranking House Republican, Louisiana Congressman Steve Scalise. We could blame Democrats and Sanders supporters for this crime, if we wanted to imitate past liberal tactics. But the rush to score partisan points by using incidents of violence to discredit your political opponents is not only all too common but also cheap and dishonest.
The blame for violent acts lies with the people who commit them, and with those who explicitly and seriously call for violence. People who just use overheated political rhetoric, or who happen to share the gunman’s opinions, should be nowhere on the list.
In 1995, Bill Clinton famously used Timothy McVeigh’s bombing of a federal building in Oklahoma City to tar Newt Gingrich and Rush Limbaugh and turn the public against small-government Republicans. The 2011 shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords led to an orgy of Republican-blaming, mostly based on the fact that Sarah Palin had released a map of 20 vulnerable Democratic districts with a set of crosshairs to mark each target. Never mind that the shooter had never seen the map and turned out to have no Republican connections and few conservative-sounding ideas. (Scalise’s shooter, by contrast, used his social media account to endorse and spread partisan arguments).
Since President Trump’s inauguration, several House Republicans have been targets of violence. A woman was arrested for trying to run Tennessee Congressman David Kustoff off the road after a healthcare town hall; a man was arrested for grabbing North Dakota Congressman Kevin Cramer at a town hall; a 71-year-old female staffer for California Congressman Dana Rohrabacher was knocked out at a protest and the FBI arrested a man for making death threats against Arizona Congresswoman Martha McSally.
The more we blame speech for violence, the more likely we are to use violence to stop speech.
Everyone can see that the political climate has gotten a lot nastier lately. Americans used to despise politicians they disagreed with; now they hate the people who vote for them. Fewer and fewer people can tolerate friendships with political adversaries, and polls show more and more Americans — yes, especially Democrats — have trouble respecting anyone who voted for the other candidate. Donating to the wrong cause can get your business boycotted, and a stray tweet can bring down the online rage mobs.
All the talk of “resistance” and “treason,” plus the apocalyptic rhetoric about the climate and healthcare, certainly doesn’t lower the country’s temperature. But drawing a line from rhetoric to violence will only make matters worse. Each half of the country deciding that the other half is literally responsible for murder will only deepen that divide.
Every political and religious cause will inevitably attract some zealots who take strong words too far. It’s fair to blame a movement for the violence it inspires if — and only if — its leaders actually, seriously urge and celebrate and perpetrate violent acts, as the leaders of groups like Islamic State do.
But even at a time when American political figures call each other fascists and traitors and rant about resisting tyranny, there remains a world of difference between our political factions and Islamic State. If you hear someone shoot their mouth off, just remember it’s still only their mouth.
The more we blame speech for violence, the more likely we are to use violence to stop speech. Blurring the lines between bullets and tweets eventually will leave us with more bullets. Nobody forced Scalise’s shooter to pick up a gun over politics; he did that himself. It cheapens the moral consequences of that decision to credit angry words with an assist.
Democracy and free speech need room for people to exaggerate and vent. It wasn’t right when Democrats blamed Republicans instead of the Arizona shooter for the Giffords attack, and it wouldn’t be right for Republicans to return the favor just to get even. Keep the blame where it belongs.
Dan McLaughlin is an attorney in New York and a contributing columnist to National Review Online.