Political Violence is Our Issue Too

Political violence is a problem, we’re tempted to think, but not for us.

After all, our candidate wasn’t the one who openly agitated for violence at his rallies, excused his criminally violent supporters as “passionate“, or hinted about his opponent’s assassination. Our congresspeople don’t assault reporters. We don’t use guns as props at our demonstrations, or carry banners about the Tree of Liberty needing to be watered by the blood of tyrants. (The guy on the right was protesting outside an Obama townhall meeting in 2009.) We don’t call for our opponents to be shot for treason. Our senators aren’t encouraging us “to shoot at the government when it becomes tyrannical”.

No, no, that’s not us. We build on the nonviolent heritage of Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and the Freedom Riders. The day after Trump’s inauguration, we brought millions of people into the streets without any violence. (I was on Boston Common with a couple hundred thousand others. The most confrontational thing I heard was Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey saying to Trump, “We’ll see you in court.”)

Yeah, those other guys need to be more careful, so that they don’t encourage Islamophobes to kill people on public transit, or promote conspiracy theories that result in gullible guys shooting up pizza places or getting into gun battles with cops on their way to shut down the heart of the Great Plot.

But not us. We’re OK.

And then shit happens.

Wednesday, James Hodgkinson started shooting at Republican congresspeople as they practiced for an annual charity baseball game against Democratic congresspeople. (In other words, while they were doing maybe the least offensive thing some of them have done all year.) House Majority Whip Steve Scalise was hit, along with a staffer and two police. He was in critical condition for a couple of days before being upgraded to serious.

Hodgkinson died after being shot by police, and so far we don’t have a note or other statement explaining his actions. But the political motivation seems obvious: He volunteered for the Sanders campaign in Iowa. He made anti-Trump comments on social media. He came all the way from Illinois, so he didn’t just happen to be in that park looking to shoot some random person. During his attack, he had a list of Republican congressmen in his pocket.

To me, as a liberal, this looks anomalous. But it doesn’t to conservatives, who blame liberals for a number of attacks we don’t identify as our own: like the shooting of five police officers in Dallas, or of two other police in New York City. The shooters appear to have been motivated by revenge against police in general for police shootings of blacks. We protested the same shootings, so they must be with us. Ditto for violence in Ferguson and Baltimore after the Michael Brown and Freddie Gray killings; liberals were also angered by those killings, so conservatives pin the violence on us.

Then there are the antifa (i.e. anti-fascist) and black bloc (named for their style of dress, not their skin color) street fighters who battle against similar right-wing hooligans. (That strikes me as a case of mutual myopia: Each side sees the thugs on the other side, and conveniently overlooks its own.) Some conservatives even blame us for attacks by Muslims. We’re the ones who stick up for Muslim rights and protest when Trump tries to get tough with them, so the killers in Orlando and San Bernadino are our people too.

If you’re a liberal like me, chances are this sounds nutty to you. And mostly it is. I have never advocated assassinating police officers or street fighting or nightclub massacres or gunning down congressional ballplayers, and I don’t consider those actions to be a rational extrapolation of anything I did advocate. I can’t see that Bernie Sanders bears any responsibility for the fact that some guy both supported his campaign and tried to kill the House majority whip. And the mere fact that you don’t want the University of California to help Milo Yiannopoulos spread his hateful message doesn’t implicate you in the Berkeley riot.

But now I do have to concede something: I need to offer other people the same kind of understanding I want for myself.

So I need to say this to conservatives: You may believe that Islam poses some unique threat to the American way of life (and I may disagree with you), but that doesn’t make you responsible for the Portland guy who yelled racial slurs at two Muslim women and then killed two guys who tried to defend them. You may interpret the 2nd Amendment differently than I do, but that doesn’t make you an accomplice to every mass shooting. You may believe abortion should be illegal, but that doesn’t equate you with the people who assassinate abortion doctors or shoot up Planned Parenthood clinics.

And yet, I don’t want to let off the hook everyone (on either side) who hasn’t actually pulled a trigger. You can’t say “somebody ought to kill that guy” and then claim innocence if somebody does. You can’t put out a wanted poster saying a doctor is “wanted by God” and then absolve yourself after someone delivers him to God. You can’t pose with a facsimile of someone’s bloody head, and express shock if someone bloodies the real head. If you invent and spread baseless conspiracy theories like Pizzagate, you are implicated if someone believes you and responds in a way that might make sense if the theory were true.

Staying involved without contributing to the problem is a tricky line to walk. It’s just as important to understand what the problem isn’t as to understand what it is.

The problem isn’t “extremism”, if that word just refers to views well outside the mainstream. The kind of libertarianism that wants to privatize the streets and zero out all anti-poverty programs is extreme. Confiscating all fortunes larger than $1 billion would be extreme. Amending the Constitution to ban all privately owned firearms or to make Christianity the official religion would be extreme. And yet, these are all proposals that people might debate rationally, without killing each other.

The problem isn’t that people are taking politics too seriously. Politics is serious. Politics is whether we go to war. It’s whether sick people get care. It’s whether your children get educated or have a shot at a job someday. It’s whether your town gets rebuilt after the hurricane, whether our food is safe to eat, or if we’ll be prepared for the next epidemic. It’s serious. It’s worth arguing about. It’s worth obsessing over, even. It’s worth getting out on the street and continuing to make your demands after the authorities say no. Taking politics seriously isn’t the problem. Serious people can have debates without killing each other.

Violence is different from seriousness or extremism. It comes out of dehumanization, out of believing that your opponents are so evil that they can’t be reasoned with, and that your side’s victory is so important that if you lose you might as well pull the Temple down on everyone. It comes from feeling cornered, like if you lose this battle you have nowhere to retreat to, no chance to find more persuasive arguments and win another day.

Lots of people in America are feeling that kind of despair. Anything you say in public, you have to figure that some desperate person is going to hear.

What goes on in those desperate minds? One of the creepiest novels I’ve ever read was John Fowles’ The Collector. It centers on a young man who wins the lottery and uses the money to pursue his fantasy: He quits his job, remodels his house to include a prison cell, kidnaps an attractive young woman, and keeps her there, hoping she will come to love him. As she get more desperate to escape, eventually she dies, and then he decides to find someone else and start the process again.

What I found most disturbing about the novel was how much I could identify with the the root fantasy: Someone who doesn’t notice you might still come to love you, if somehow circumstances could be contrived to throw you together. I’ve had that fantasy, and yet it never led to kidnapping or imprisonment or death. Probably all that would have been needed to prevent the novel’s tragedy was one good buddy, who over a beer would hear some version of the daydream before it ever hardened into a plan, appreciate it on the level of pure fantasy, and then wistfully say, “Yeah, but that would be crazy. It wouldn’t turn out well.” The Collector doesn’t have that friend and never hears that comment.

Similarly, I think many of us have, at one time or another, fantasized about being an avenging hero. That’s my best guess as to what James Hodgkinson thought he was doing: Those evil Republican congressmen would go on perpetrating their villainy, until some hero stopped them. And when he did stop them, crowds would cheer.

As we live more and more inside our separate bubbles of social media, it becomes increasingly difficult to picture people in distant bubbles as anything other than villains, and all too easy to imagine a cheering crowd. And I think we’re all just a little less likely to find ourselves having that beer with the buddy who says, “Yeah, but that would be crazy.”

I believe this new reality puts an extra responsibility on us. Not to be less serious or less intense. Not to shade our views in the direction of the Center, wherever that is. Not to stop criticizing things that are actually wrong or working to correct them. But definitely to avoid letting someone else believe that we will be in the crowd that cheers their avenging hero fantasy.

I think that means avoiding images and metaphors of violence, whether it’s Kathy Griffin’s severed-head photo or Sarah Palin’s congresspeople-in-the-crosshairs graphic. It means not dehumanizing opponents, and not exaggerating their misdeeds — or making some up out of whole cloth. It means challenging the people on our own side whose rhetoric crosses the line. And it means being, whenever we can, the sympathetic voice that keeps violent fantasy within its proper bounds, and restrains it from morphing into a plan.

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  • justinfrank442  On June 19, 2017 at 8:34 am

    This deserves to be read by everyone. Terrific and important! Justin Frank, MD

    Sent from my iPhone


  • justinfrank442  On June 19, 2017 at 8:39 am

    Second thought: The people who need to read this won’t, partly because it needs to be made brisk and simple. If you have a ruthless editor please have a go. It’s really important. JF

    Sent from my iPhone


  • Larry Benjamin  On June 19, 2017 at 9:20 am

    Interestingly, Scalise has opposed legislation that would have limited sales of firearms to the mentally ill. I don’t mean to imply that he’s directly responsible for the attack, but I’ve noticed that conservatives can change their minds when an issue affects them personally.

  • Herbert Feinzig  On June 19, 2017 at 10:08 am

    Too easy to forget that Jesus said “Turn the other cheek”. Too many guns and the glorification of violence that makes violence the solution. Those that preach nonviolence are often killed by those that see violence as the solution.
    we need to reeducate ourselves on the true cost of violence; i.e. the loss of our leaders and their ideas, our society stepping backwards, our national assets going to wasteful sinkholes.

  • Tom Amitai (@TomAmitaiUSA)  On June 19, 2017 at 10:14 am

    The most bizarre part of this to me is that, so far, the only one on the right I’ve heard saying that he’ll be toning down his rhetoric is Ted Nugent.

  • Jay Conner  On June 19, 2017 at 1:33 pm

    It’s not so new as the present media bubble. Hero to cheering crowds was also the delusion of John Wilkes Booth

  • Lydia Spitzer  On June 19, 2017 at 2:51 pm

    All right, I confess: I have at times muttered to my partner, friends or dogs, that certain government officials should be shot for treason, because it seemed to me their actions were treasonous in nature. And you’re right, these days, it’s not a good idea to say that out loud when you’re outside of your house, even if what you’re envisioning is the adjudicated end of a long legal trial….It’s like the time in the 70’s when there were so many bomb scares, and fake bombs, in public buildings, that my idea of putting a fake bomb in the college administration building with a note I thought was amusing, turned out to be nowhere near as clever or funny as I imagined. Context is everything.

  • Lucky_Pedestrian  On June 19, 2017 at 5:00 pm

    “Violence…comes out of dehumanization.” Bingo. “Moral disengagement” is a behavioral, not a political, issue. I think we’re in a dangerous social climate that cultivates this failure of self-regulation. https://web.stanford.edu/~kcarmel/CC_BehavChange_Course/readings/Additional%20Resources/Bandura/bandura_moraldisengagement.pdf

  • Dale Moses  On June 19, 2017 at 6:31 pm

    We should also not let the right wing off on this one though. It’s not only dehumanizing that creates violence but dehumanization. That is, threats will often provoke responses. This guy not only failed to have his buddy there to tell him an idea was bad(though sometimes buddies become conspiracies and those don’t necessarily end well either) but also had been told that he was the enemy that the right was coming to get.

    As much as we would like to unilaterally disarm in the politics of violence we will be unable to do so when people on our side are exposed to calls to murder us and our leaders.

  • Kate  On June 20, 2017 at 8:45 pm

    One of the things most of the men who commit political violence have in common (in addition to being men, most often white) is that they have a history of violence against women. Violence is peddled to young men as a masculine and heroic solution to problems. It is ridiculous but true that the cowardly but violent misogyny of a Trump is seen as masculinity and toughness by a huge number of men and many women. Indeed the ability to dehumanize is an aspect of Toxic Machismo. The shooter of Republicans may have voted for Sanders, but he had a history of violence. Changing our toxic versions of manhood would go a long way towards a less violent country.

  • Philippe Saner  On June 22, 2017 at 6:32 pm

    Minor edit: you’re missing an “is” in the first phrase.


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