After the shooting of House Majority Whip Steve Scalise and four others (and I wish I knew their names so I could post them here) in Alexandria, reactions from most of the press and political world were cautious, decent, and professional. All of which is heartening, and hopefully signals a new, and better, standard for covering these types of tragic situations.
Bipartisan congressional baseball games raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for charity every year. It’s one of the rare, nice things that happens in Washington. And it’s worth remembering that in America, playing softball or doing charity work is ubiquitous, while political violence is virtually nonexistent. Certainly, any reading of history illustrates that Americans are far less disposed to turn to political violence than most — and the incidents that do occur are most often perpetrated by those acting alone or part of a fringe movement that is widely shunned by most citizens.
That said, when a group of politicians wearing jerseys adorned with the word “Republican” are shot with a rifle belonging to an advocate of progressive left, we can’t act like it’s simply a mugging gone bad. If James Hodgkinson, the Bernie fan and Republican hater, turns out to be guilty, his motivations seem rather easy to discern. And, no, it’s not terrorism in the way Islamist terrorism is terrorism, since neither Bernie Sanders, nor any person or faction associated with him that I can tell, supports violence as of means of pursuing political objectives. Sanders has zero responsibility for Hodgkinson’s actions.
But many Republicans, I’m sure, imagine what this event looks like had the parties been reversed. We would, doubtlessly, be thrust into another vacuous national conversation like the one we had during the 2009-2010 Obamacare debates, when every false and exaggerated claim about Tea Party violence induced a thousand wringing hands on cable TV to grapple over the supposed fascistic tendencies and ugly underbelly of conservatism. It was the same after the Oklahoma City bombing, when President Bill Clinton blamed talk radio.
Moreover, we would also almost surely see the crime used as cudgel to chill speech.
After Gabby Giffords was shot by Jared Loughner in 2011, there was not a single shred of evidence linking his actions to any political rhetoric or position. Yet, much of the question begging and amateur psychoanalyzing was used to lay culpability at the feet of people like Sarah Palin and other Tea Party leaders. Notables like Andrew Sullivan wrote that Palin’s “recklessly violent and inflammatory rhetoric has poisoned the discourse and has long run the risk of empowering the deranged.” The New York Times’ Paul Krugman wrote a piece headlined “Climate of Hate,” in which he tenuously cobbled together some bad jokes to claim that rising tide of violence would soon manifest because of Republican positions. “The question is,” he asked, “will G.O.P. leaders accept the reality of what’s happening to America, and take a stand against eliminationist rhetoric?”
This was a lie. There was no eliminationist rhetoric — not by anyone that mattered. There is no eliminationist rhetoric today. What we have is heated and emotional rhetoric, sometimes bordering on irresponsible, but well within the traditional contours of political discourse.
After all, judging from Hodgkinson’s feeds, he believed that anyone who supported free-market oriented health-care insurance bills was complicit in murdering the poor — which was aping many over-the-top comments of Sanders. He believed anyone who wanted to defund abortion mills was just trying to enslave women. He believed that people who wanted to get out of an international treaty on fossil fuels wanted to destroy the planet. He wasn’t mimicking the rhetoric of the fringe, but the rhetoric of the center Left. Which is hyperbolic, often a way to dehumanize opponents, and mostly stupid. But, as it goes, not something new.
Just like those who blame Donald Trump for every random act of violence, including a Montana Republican’s body-slamming of a journalist, those who blame Bernie Sanders are just finding a way to use tragedy for partisanship. Now, obviously every incident varies to some extent. We can call out rhetoric. Some politicians say things that deserve rebuke. We can debate the politics of guns. But we need a standard. And we need to stick to it. We can’t blame heated political rhetoric for some violence and then pretend it has nothing to do with it at other times.