Let's be crystal clear: The person or people responsible for the acts of domestic political terrorism that were reported yesterday must face swift, righteous, and unsparing justice. Their crimes are disgraceful, cowardly, and absolutely unacceptable in a free society. Using physical intimidation or violence as a means to any political end has no place whatsoever in the United States. It's sickening -- and it strikes at the heart of our system, in which we settle political and social differences at the ballot box, in courts of law, and through open debate. As this horrifying news broke, very little was known in the way of hard facts, beyond the identities of the would-be victims: Several prominent current and former office-holders, a major political donor, and an ex-intelligence official now working as a news commentator. The most obvious common thread among the targets was that they all reside on the political Left, and had all been subjected to political attacks from President Trump and his supporters.
Sadly, yet predictably, an evidence-free partisan blame game swung into frenzied effect nearly immediately. Many liberals decided that Trump's rhetoric was the root of the problem, and calibrated their partisan reactions accordingly. This included the leader of a major cable news network jumping to unsubstantiated conclusions about the motives of the yet-unidentified bomber. It was certainly very plausible that the perpetrator may have fixated on individuals whom Trump has sharply criticized. But that was still an unproven theory amid several, and facts ought to matter to people in the news business. Indeed, the political Right has been falsely blamed by the Left/media complex for a string of violent incidents in recent years, inaccurate smears that appeared to gain currency because they happened to fit a certain narrative. (I'll add that right-wing speculation that the mail bombs were some sort of 'false flag' operation to make conservatives look bad was also reckless and indefensible). The most unjust and persistent example of this phenomenon is the persistent myth that the shooting of former Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was a politically-motivated assault. It was not, but the assumption that it was resulted a torrent of demagoguery and bogus 'larger truths' that endure to this very day.
I have attempted to be quite consistent on the question of blaming heated political rhetoric for the actions of deranged individuals -- even when those individuals are rooted in politics. We should, of course, all strive for more tolerance and thoughtfulness in our discourse, but civility panics and knee-jerk assignments of moral culpability in the wake of terrible events are almost always designed to score political points. On the very day that a left-wing lunatic opened fire on a baseball field full of Republican Congressmen last summer, I wrote that his actions were his alone, and should not be pinned on the wider Left. Remember, the attempted mass assassin reportedly shouted "this is for healthcare" as he opened fire, after confirming that the gathered officials were members of the Republican Party. His social media footprint demonstrated that he was an angry member of the hard Left. He had a list of Republican representatives' names on his person when he committed his shooting spree. His motives were obvious, and his odious actions came amid a charged climate of anti-GOP rhetoric from liberal media figures and Democratic politicians.
Nevertheless, I argued strenuously on that horrible day that he, not they, were responsible for his appalling actions -- despite the deluge of over-the-top attacks and unhinged demonization (Thousands will die! The end of the world! Armageddon!) that inevitably accompany public debates over conservative proposals. But because the temptation to jam up partisan adversaries is nearly irresistible, and because many conservatives were primed for payback over similar mistreatment when the ideological roles had been reversed, "climate of hate" finger-pointing was deployed against Democrats in the hours and days following the baseball field shooting (media coverage of which, I must add, was notably muted in both tone and volume). House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi was asked about GOP charges that her party bore some responsibility for the foiled massacre. Her response was indignant and incredulous:
For anyone who wants to correlate Trump’s rhetoric with today’s attempted attack on Democrats — listen to how @NancyPelosi felt about correlating Democrats’ rhetoric to the shooting of @SteveScalise: pic.twitter.com/d55N8aQvGW— Greg Tomlin ?? (@TomlinMedia) October 24, 2018
"Outrageous," she seethed. "Beneath the dignity" of Congress. How dare they? She said that just because a "sick individual" had done something "despicable," that shouldn't serve as a thin excuse to heap blame on politicians who'd never dream of endorsing murder. Pelosi was especially aggrieved by "the timing of it all," referring to what she saw as an unseemly and cynical rush to partisan blame. How awful of Republicans and conservatives to make this so political, so soon. She suggested this race toward "sanctimony" was revealing, then insisted that the conversation be reserved for another day. (When that day arrived, incidentally, Pelosi, other Democrats, and some in the media decided that the real rhetorical culprits were...Donald Trump and Republicans. Neat trick, that). So back then, she was positively incensed over Republicans politicizing a tragedy by highlighting poisonous Democratic rhetoric, rather than unifying around prayer. But yesterday, with literally no information about the identity of the bombing suspect or suspects, she and Chuck Schumer issued a joint statement attacking Trump and rejecting his unequivocal denunciation as insufficient:
In joint statement, Senate and House Minority Leaders Schumer and Pelosi say President Trump's comments today on the wave of pipe bomb packages “ring hollow until he reverses his statements that condone acts of violence.”https://t.co/Nja7dSIFE0 pic.twitter.com/6816kYNWyM— MSNBC (@MSNBC) October 24, 2018
I believe that President Trump's demagogic impulses propel him to cross certain lines, far more often than he should. I also believe that a great many Democrats, including those in the previous administration, frequently resort to apocalyptic and de-humanizing "arguments" that attempt to disqualify, rather than refute, political ideas they dislike. We could all benefit from more substantive debate, and less ad hominem vitriol, in our politics. But even when our collective rhetorical thermostat is set a bit too hot ("too hot" seems like a permanent setting on both sides of the aisle these days), nearly every shred of our rough-and-tumble partisan brawls fall far short of incitement to violence -- and certainly lethal violence. Let's face it: Efforts to assign collective or partisan guilt over the acts of stray madmen are, in practice and effect, just another form of otherizing viciousness that feeds stewing resentments, compounding the core problem of rage-filled politics. It's exhausting and dishonest. And it's a harmful cycle that shows no signs of slowing.