When Rep. Chris Collins, a Republican from New York, learned that a man had shot his House colleague Steve Scalise, he said, "I can only hope that the Democrats do tone down the rhetoric."
Collins clearly blamed fierce dissent against President Trump for the shooting. "The rhetoric has been outrageous — the finger-pointing, just the tone, and the angst and the anger directed at Donald Trump, his supporters. Really, then, you know, some people react to things like that. They get angry as well. And then you fuel the fires."
This is a tempting line for a Republican, especially given the virulence of anti-Trump rhetoric and growing intolerance and illiberalism on the left. Also, many on the right will be tempted to blame the shooter's politics — he volunteered on Bernie Sanders' campaign, participated in Occupy Wall Street demonstrations, and ranted in favor of higher taxes on the rich — because some liberal commentators and even news journalists have played that game against the right.
It's certainly the case that political discussion would benefit from more civility. The tendency to attribute stupidity or malice where there is merely disagreement is widespread and corrosive. But, while we hope that this week's murder attempt on Republican lawmakers will rekindle civilized debate, it is important not to treat violence as an outgrowth of unpleasant rhetoric. Our country wrote free speech into its founding document because, among other things, the drafters recognized the distinction between speech and action. That isn't to say ugly words aren't ugly; it is to say personal responsibility includes not commiting criminal violence because of a culture of overheated rhetoric.
Collins was merely offering the mirror image of what Sanders himself said when a gunman shot up an abortion clinic in 2015. "I hope people realize that bitter rhetoric can have unintended consequences," the senator, then running for president, tweeted out.
Paul Krugman, the left-wing New York Times writer who hates conservatives, did the same when a psychotic young man shot Democratic Rep. Gabby Giffords. He blamed a "climate of hate" created by the Tea Party and described the assassination attempt as the Tea Party taken "to the next level." He cited "right-wing extremism," a favorite theme of the left. Remember the warnings before the election that Trump supporters would become violent if Hillary Clinton won?
Krugman and Sanders and all the other finger-pointers who blamed Sarah Palin or pro-lifers were flat wrong. Violence isn't a right-wing thing. Political "rhetoric" isn't to blame for shootings.
Politics and ideology may help determine whom shooters target, but it is either madness or active malice that turn these people into would-be killers.
The Alexandria shooter had an arrest record going back a decade that included domestic violence. He had been in trouble for shooting his gun in woods, and in April he walked out on his wife in Illinois and ended up in Northern Virginia. The most you can say about ideology is that after his madness or evil made him a shooter, his ideology steered him toward the target.
The same is true of the Planned Parenthood shooter, the self-described "Keynesian" who killed a student while hunting his debate teacher, the 21-year-old who went to the University of Chicago to "execute approximately 16 white male students" after a white Chicago cop killed Laquan McDonald, and the shooter who targeted the Family Research Council after the Southern Poverty Law Center listed it as an "anti-gay group."
Pro-lifers, Keynesians, Black Lives Matters protesters, and the SPLC don't advocate violence against opponents, even if some of those who support their causes have crossed the line and done so. Bernie Sanders and those calling for a 60 percent tax rate didn't drive this week's shooter to go out on his rampage.
Can rhetoric incite? Yes. Can ideologies be murderous? Clearly. But Wednesday's shooting in Alexandria was not driven by inciting rhetoric or a murderous ideology. It was driven by madness or malignancy.