It’s been a few days. Are you back to normal?
By “normal,” I mean trafficking in the nastiness that’s come to characterize our political discourse. If your answer is yes, you need to take some more time to think things over.
Individuals are responsible for their own actions, and the man* who opened fire at a baseball practice for Republican congressmen on Wednesday could not blame anyone else. We should all be clear about that. “Speech” can take many forms but, in a nation of ordered liberty, violence cannot be one of them. The now-dead assailant in Alexandria is, fortunately, the rare example of someone who turned his hateful political talk into hateful, politically motivated, attempted murder.
We should also be on the same page when it comes to the history of our political rhetoric. There was no distant past in which we were wholly cordial in our debates. It goes at least all the way back to the bitter election fought between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson to become the second president. Adams’ son and Andrew Jackson traded insults and accusations of corruption. The 1860 election literally led to civil war. Lyndon Johnson depicted Barry Goldwater as a man who would spark global annihilation. You get the point.
All that said, there is something qualitatively different about political discourse today that’s worth evaluating on its own terms, and not dismissed as rare enough (in being converted to action) and yet also common enough (in the context of American political rhetoric over the centuries) not to get overly exercised about. For while history shows the tinge of violence in political rhetoric is not new, what is new is how instantaneous and interactive political talk is now, and how inundated we are with it.
It’s one thing to choose to read it in a newspaper or on a website, or to turn on the TV or radio to a political “talk” (read: “scream”) show. It’s another to have it swamp you on Facebook or Twitter, where it comes not just from politicians and talking heads — whose speech we can compartmentalize rather easily — but from our friends, relatives, co-workers, neighbors, classmates, pewmates. Many of them write with an assumption of agreement that does not always exist, and which does not always depart amicably when challenged. It’s even spilling over into polling places in the hotly contested 6th District election.
In short, we can abide the emotive cries of our political class, exaggerated or not, better than those that come from a more personal level. We’ve probably all read the statistics and polls about friendships that were ended over politics in the past year-plus; I’m not sure they’re reliable enough to quote here, but there can be little doubt it is happening to some not-insignificant extent. I’m afraid the result is an atmosphere that makes people like the shooter in Alexandria more prone to believe he is acting rationally and even with the consent of others. Some of the reactions of his fellow travelers on social media suggest he was right about that.
When past acts of violence were blamed on politics, either the ideology was a twisted one well outside the mainstream (think the Charleston shooter or various other acts by white supremacists) or a confused mishmash of ideas that could only be deemed coherent in the cracked-up mind in which they existed (as in the case of the Tucson shooter of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords). The Alexandria shooter was substantively different: While he apparently died too soon for authorities to interrogate him, he left behind a long trail of social media posts and letters to his local newspaper. He may have harbored a distorted view of what Republicans think and want to do, but it is a distortion widely held and propagated in America. (I hasten to add that similar distortions toward Democrats are also prevalent, and it’s easily conceivable a similar crime could be committed against Democrats by someone who falls on the right side of the political spectrum.)
This does not translate to collective guilt in actions like Wednesday’s, but there is a bigger question here: Is this the kind of people we want to be? I sure hope not. If you agree, I challenge you as an individual — I’m not talking about some nebulous “national dialogue” here — to ensure you represent yourself that way.
*As has become my custom, I won’t add to his infamy by naming him here. If you want to know his name, it’s easy enough to find.