On Wednesday, a far-left Bernie Sanders supporter who despised President Trump opened fire on Republican Congresspeople practicing for a bipartisan charity baseball game. Now, we all know that if the situation had been reversed – if a President Trump supporter and Bernie hater had opened fire on Congressional Democrats – we would be treated to the full spectacle of media faux-outrage. We’d get longwinded stemwinders about Republicans creating a climate of hate and violence. We’d receive stern talking-tos about gun culture and polarizing rherotic. We know this, because it’s been a strategic mainstay for Democrats for half a century, going all the way back to the left blaming the right for a “climate of hate” that supposedly led to JFK’s assassination by a communist in 1963. The left has blamed talk radio for the Oklahoma City bombing, Sarah Palin and the right for the attempted assassination of Gabby Giffords by a mentally ill man (Bernie Sanders attempted to raise money off this canard), Confederate flag owners for a massacre at a historically black church, and President Trump for a stabbing in Portland committed by a Sanders supporter.
But is it right to blame Sanders and leftist ideology more broadly for Wednesday’s shooting?
Of course not.
Rhetoric is not directly responsible for violence unless it advocates violence. Radical jihadism advocates violence; the bulk of its supporters know this and support violence; a solid contingent of its followers participate in violence. The same is not true for American-brand political leftism, as vile as it is. For the right to equate verbiage with violence – no matter how inflammatory the verbiage – is to fall prey to the same snowflake syndrome the right condemns on college campuses. There is no logical gap between attempting to blame right-wing speakers for supposed “violent speech” in opposing Black Lives Matter, and attempting to blame Sanders for the sins of a random follower.
This leaves two questions on the table: first, are we living through a more toxic political climate than ever before in American history, promoting individual acts of violence among the mentally unstable? Second, are we in danger of blurring the lines between passionate rhetoric and actual advocacy toward violence?
As far as the first question goes, the answer is obviously no. It would take tremendous ignorance of American history to believe that our current political climate is worse than Civil War-era America or even late 1960’s America, if only because our underlying problems are significantly less horrifying. Yes, our political climate is toxic. Just yesterday, Virginia governor Terry McAuliffe (D-VA), who attempted to blame gun control for the shooting, suggested that the Trump campaign or someone associated with it had acted treasonously with regard to Russia. The entire “resistance” is built on the rhetoric of a wartime underground. By the same token, the right has taken to using war language far more regularly than it did even during the Obama era – we’re told we’re in a civil war, that the media are our enemies. But nobody took this stuff particularly seriously – we can all tell the difference between rhetorical flourishes and violent advocacy.
Except when we can’t.
Which brings us to the second question: are we moving beyond purple language and into the realm of actual violent advocacy? On both left and right, the answer seems to be yes. On the left, thanks to politicians attempting to capitalize on public anger, groups like Antifa run free in major American cities; acts of violence against Trump supporters are brushed off or treated by the media as he said-she said situations. On the right, too many Republicans ignore or downplay incidents like the Greg Gianforte incident in Montana, or then-candidate Trump’s talk about paying people’s legal bills if they assaulted protesters.
There are two ways to deal with this problem. First, we must establish a bright line rule: no defending or advocating violence. Period.
Second, we can all take a deep breath before hitting "send." It is not our fault if fringe characters take advantage of our language to do violence we've never suggested and don't support – but let’s all do our best (yes, I’m including myself, since I’ve certainly sinned here) to use language we can defend morally. That doesn’t mean tamping down our passion with regard to politics. It does mean thinking twice before hitting send on a Tweet or a Facebook post comparing Republicans to ISIS thanks to their healthcare policy, or suggesting that Democrats are eager to watch Americans die in terrorist incidents because they oppose President Trump’s travel ban. Perhaps the language of “civil war” is perfectly appropriate, and we’re willing to stand by it. So be it. But let’s think it through. That seems like a decent thing to do if we wish to preserve some semblance of a social fabric.