After House majority whip Steve Scalise and four others (and I wish I knew their names, so I could post them here) were shot in Alexandria, Virginia, reactions from most of the press and political world were cautious, decent and professional. This is heartening, and hopefully it signals a new and better standard for covering these types of tragic situations.
The bipartisan Congressional Baseball Game raises hundreds of thousands of dollars for charities every year. It's one of the rare nice things that happens in Washington, D.C. And it's worth remembering that in America, softball and charity work are 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 who act alone or are 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 and a handgun belonging to an advocate of the progressive left, we can't act like it's simply a mugging gone bad. If alleged shooter James Hodgkinson, a fan of Sen. Bernie Sanders and a Republican hater, turns out to be guilty, his motivations seem rather easy to discern. And, no, it's not terrorism in the way Islamic terrorism is terrorism, since neither Sanders nor any person or faction associated with him, that I can tell, supports violence as a means of pursuing political objectives. Sanders has zero responsibility for Hodgkinson's actions.
But I'm sure many Republicans imagine what this event would look like had the parties been reversed. We would undoubtedly 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 grappling over the supposed fascistic tendencies and ugly underbelly of conservatism. It was the same after the Oklahoma City bombing, when then-President Bill Clinton blamed talk radio.
Moreover, we would almost surely see the crime used as cudgel to chill speech.
After then-Rep. Gabby Giffords was shot by Jared Lee Loughner in 2011, there was not a single shred of evidence linking his actions to a political rhetoric or position. Yet much of the question-begging and amateur psychoanalyzing was used to lay culpability at the feet of people like former Gov. 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 the rising tide of violence would soon manifest because of Republican positions. He said: "It's really up to G.O.P. leaders. Will they 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 that sometimes borders on irresponsible but is well within the traditional contours of political discourse.
After all, judging from Hodgkinson's feeds, he seemed to believe that anyone who supported free market-oriented health care bills was complicit in murdering the poor -- he was aping many of Sanders' over-the-top comments. 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, mostly stupid and often a way to dehumanize opponents. But, as it goes, it's not something new.
Just like those who blame President Donald Trump for every random act of violence, including a Montana Republican congressman-elect'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 violence at other times.