Per the New York Times: “A lone gunman who was reportedly distraught over President Trump’s election opened fire on Republican members of the congressional baseball team at a practice field in this Washington suburb [Alexandria, VA] on Wednesday, using a rifle to shower the field with bullets that struck four people, including Steve Scalise, the majority whip of the House of Representatives.”
And to underscore that this shooting differs from the 2011 shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, this from Politico:
“In the hours after Wednesday morning’s shooting, one big difference emerged between Giffords’s assailant [Jared] Loughner and James Hodgkinson, who critically injured House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La) and four others before being shot by police. Whereas Loughner’s history of failed military service, run-ins with the law, and mental health records indicated a paranoid, mentally ill man without clear political intentions, the history of yesterday’s shooter indicated a man who had set out deliberately to harm Republican lawmakers.”
Nevertheless, these shooting incidents spur a lot of discussion that has become routine, so let’s fast-forward through some of it.
The first iteration is usually rights-talk, because contemporary America loves rights-talk. I support the First and Second Amendments to the Constitution, but they would remain the supreme law of the land even if I did not.
So let’s move directly on to the issue of responsibilities, the question of what we should make of the fact that inflammatory political speech may occasionally trigger someone to violence. And both Left and Right should find food for thought from this shooting.
The Left has a problem. When they let prominent pundits like Paul Krugman, Andrew Sullivan and Markos Moulitsas falsely blame Sarah Palin for the Giffords shooting (with the NYT Ed Board walking right up to the line at the time, and right over the line last night), for the rather cliched and innocuous act of putting bullseyes on a map of targeted Congressional Districts, they let their ghoulish desire for a momentary political advantage trap them in a situation like this one.
Indeed, since the Giffords shooting, the Left has gotten worse on the relationship of speech to political violence. Increasingly, Leftists majoring in Totalitarian Studies at progressive universities and colleges like Oberlin, Duke and Middlebury are parroting Toni Morrison’s adage that “oppressive language does more than represent violence; it is violence.”
This is profoundly illiberal. I have previously quoted Adam Gopnik in The New Yorker:
“It is not merely that an assault on an ideology is different from a threat made to a person; it is that it is the opposite of a threat made to a person. The whole end of liberal civilization is to substitute the criticism of ideas for assaults on people.”
Gopnik was referring to the Islamist reaction to and attacks on Charlie Hebdo, but the point is equally applicable here.
The Right also has a problem. To be sure, it is difficult to not experience at least a frisson of schadenfreude at the Leftists being forced to reckon with their disgraceful behavior in the aftermath of the Giffords shooting. It will be tempting to wallow in that schadenfreude.
This is a temptation which should be resisted. The Alinskyite tactic of making one’s opponents live up to their own standards is far more defensible when holding people to high standards. Reinforcing the Leftist idea that people may be blamed for the violence of others lowers standards and fuels the vicious cycle of escalation of the current political moment. It is possible to attack hypocrisy without becoming part of it ourselves.
The Alexandria shooting also reveals something important about the #WAR faction of the Right.
It is one thing to refer to the “culture war” in America, as this is fairly standard political hyperbole. It is another to speak of a culture war, a “civil war,” a “cold civil war,” or a “Flight 93 election” to describe an existential event, as the #WAR folks do.
To claim that any such “war” is existential is to implicitly suggest that political violence must follow. If conservatives are being assaulted on college campuses, if the House Majority Whip is shot, are these not violent acts of actual war? And if the fate of America rests in the balance, is violence not to be expected or tolerated in return? (see, e.g., those so-called conservatives who defended then-candidate, now-GOP Rep. Greg Gianforte’s assault of a journalist.)
The answer, incidentally, is “no.” Confront most of the keyboard commandos and radio radicals about their “war” rhetoric and they will almost immediately concede that they don’t mean, you know, “war war.” The argumentum ad masculinum quickly goes limp in the face of true violence. The West Coast Straussians aren’t getting gang tats and cruising the mean streets of Berkeley in an Escalade, looking to mow down the antifa.
The #WAR faction, despite their chest-puffing, is committed to doing little more than the supposed elite girly-pundits attending their Beltway cocktail parties and covert Stonecutters meetings. The #WARmongers aren’t getting ready to shoot their AR-15s, they’re getting ready to shoot off their mouths, just like virtually everyone else. Except everyone else isn’t a phony blowhard about it.
Inasmuch as the wi-fi warriors have now been caught with their Big Boy Pants down, perhaps people of good will — Left and Right — can focus on discrediting the idea that words and ideas are political violence, or justify it.
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