The Virginia Shooting: Thinking about Incitement

Published June 15, 2017

National Review Online

“He was hunting us.” Those were the words of Republican congressman Mike Bishop describing the depraved gun assault on members of Congress while they were innocently fielding ground balls and practicing base hits on a suburban Virginia field. The politics of personal destruction became literal.

Within a few hours, the president and congressional leadership put aside bitter partisanship and spoke of what unites us a nation. President Trump noted that “We may have our differences, but we do well in times like these to remember that everyone who serves in our nation’s capital is here because, above all, they love our country” and that “our children deserve to grow up in a nation of safety and peace and that we are strongest when we are unified and when we work together for the common good.”

Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, his voice sometimes choked with emotion, said, “My colleagues, there are many memories from this day we will want to forget, and many images we will not want to see again. But there is one image in particular that this House should keep. And that is a photo I saw of our Democratic colleagues gathered in prayer this morning after hearing the news.”

Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi responded in the same spirit, offering that she prays for all of her colleagues, that the horrific attack was an “injury in the family” and even that she prays for “President Donald Trump’s presidency to be successful.”

Senator Bernie Sanders, whom the dead gunman had admired and worked for, announced that he was “sickened by this despicable act.”

A few years ago, these reaffirmations of shared values would have been mere platitudes. Today, they are candles flickering in the fierce gales that are transforming our politics.

The New York Times editorial board the following morning gave a nod toward civility by acknowledging that conservatives and “right wing media” were “right to demand forceful condemnation of hate speech and crimes by anti-Trump liberals.” But then they tainted their momentary lapse into fairness with a false debating point that Jared Lee Loughner, who shot Representative Gabby Giffords, was more incited by Sarah Palin than James Hodgkinson had been by his diet of political extremism. Actually, there is no evidence that the mentally ill Loughner had ever been influenced by Palin’s “target map” of districts, and by recycling this bit of left-wing agitprop, the New York Times contributes to the very extremism it is purporting to condemn. So does every right-wing outlet that feeds the narrative of “civil war” and catastrophism that has characterized some Trump partisans. (The Times later altered the wording slightly — but not enough to erase the implication that Palin was somehow responsible for Loughner’s attack.)

Shaun King, a New York Daily News columnist, also managed to miss the point when he objected that “If 20 Republican congressmen were shot and killed, it would not improve the chances of us having a better health care system. It’s nonsensical.”

This is a common theme. People often condemn “senseless violence,” as if there were some forms of violence that make sense.

The first point of our nation – above any other – is to live together in peace. Civil peace is a higher priority even than freedom, because without peace, there can be no freedom.

The attempted massacre on the baseball diamond notwithstanding, political violence remains thankfully rare in the U.S. Each time there is an outbreak of it – from Orlando to the Unabomber to Oklahoma City – some rush to place political blame (and get political benefit) and others to object that only the perpetrator can be held accountable.

I don’t agree that incitement is never an issue. When leaders of movements justify violence for political ends, they offer cover to borderline individuals inclined to commit horrific acts. Many of the Islamic terrorists who blow up concerts and restaurants, for example, turn out to be criminals looking for justification for their aggression. Can we seriously claim that the incitement circulated by al-Qaeda and ISIS plays no role? Humans love to clothe their dark impulses in virtuous garments. James Hodgkinson had previously been arrested on “suspicion of battery, domestic battery, criminal damage of property and reckless discharge of a firearm.” He was a fuse waiting for a spark. Are we ready to say that the hysterical anti-Trump diatribes he was swallowing didn’t push him over the edge?

A conservative worldview presupposes that domestic tranquility is an accomplishment, not the default state of human relations. Everyone who flirts with extremism – from President Trump granting legitimacy to Alex Jones and others, to the Left indulging in assassination porn — is fraying the delicate bonds that keep us one nation, and one nation at peace with itself.

— Mona Charen is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. © 2017

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