When a Portland man stabbed the defenders of two women who appeared to be Muslim in May, he was quickly identified by his conservative and white supremacist politics. He had supported Donald Trump, ranted against Muslims, and appeared at rallies with neo-Nazi gear. That he also supported Sen. Bernie Sanders and the Standing Rock protests was less reported.
When another man shot at members of congress on June 14, leaving GOP House Whip Steve Scalise in critical condition, different media personalities quickly played a similar game with a new twist: suspect James Hodgkinson was a proud Sanders supporter who frequented anti-Trump social media pages. Minutes after the shooting, Donald Trump, Jr. repeated a sentiment most often expressed by progressives of late: that violent rhetoric sometimes has violent ends.
This behavior is commonplace after highly publicized shootings. When (what is thought to be) senseless violence occurs, it is natural for us to seek any possible easy explanation. Sometimes, it's regulation of gun ownership and trade. Sometimes, it's mental health. But since Democrat Gabrielle Giffords was shot in 2011, a popular scapegoat has also been political and religious ideology.
When shooters identify as Muslims, public discourse surrounds the issue of "radical Islamic terrorism." In the aftermath of attacks like those in Portland and in Colorado Springs, conservatism and white nationalism have been blamed. After the horrific attack in an Orlando nightclub last year that took nearly fifty lives from the queer community, some blamed Christian homophobia. The list of generally held sets of beliefs that have been blamed within the last month goes on: Islam, Islamophobia, Christianity, anti-Christian sentiments, toxic masculinity, feminism, white nationalism, anti-cop rhetoric, pro-cop rhetoric. And so on.
The same people who blame the rhetoric of their political opponents for political violence are also quick to absolve their own ideology of the same.
It goes without saying that folks of all political stripes are generally not driven to violence over their political beliefs. But it is also true that people are motivated to act on ideology in both constructive and destructive ways all the time. The Muslim who gives alms to the poor and the Christian who volunteers at the soup kitchen might both explicitly attribute those acts to their religion using much of the same language as attackers like Orlando's Omar Mateen and Colorado Springs' Robert Deer.
This is true, too, for James Hodgkinson. He felt strongly enough about his political beliefs to volunteer for Sanders' campaign, and then asked whether it was Republican senators playing baseball before shooting them.
Could the oft-blamed "rhetoric" be a cause here? Hodgkinson certainly participated in his share of impassioned debate and outraged declarations. The liberal Raw Story, which was one of the sites Hodgkinson followed on Facebook, listed some of the posts and petitions he shared. In one, he claimed that Donald Trump had "destroyed democracy." In another, he said, it was "time to destroy Trump & Co." These posts aren't proof, but Hodgkinson left plenty of hints that his violent actions were fueled by his own perception of American politics. Hindsight makes this obvious, but predicting acts of violence in advance is more challenging.
Portland terrorist James Christian's motives seemed less explicitly partisan, but still rooted in political ideology. Robert Deer was, too. Jared Lee Loughner's attempted murder of Rep. Giffords was framed as another such case, even though Loughner's "politics" turned out to be an unintelligible mishmash of nonsense and paranoia. These incidents have happened consistently at the hands of people on both the left and the right.
Rhetoric impacts both one's ideology and one's view of current events. The frequent comparisons of former President Barack Obama, and Trump, to figures like Joseph Stalin and Adolf Hitler are bound to affect the popular perception of them as autocrats. If a person perceives a world leader to be a ruthless leader categorically similar to Hitler, it is easier for that person to morally justify their assassination and that of their abettors in public office.
But while there may be causal links in individual cases, and there is little doubt that much of America's current discourse is steeped in hyperbole, it is lazy and irresponsible to blame partisan politics wholesale for individual acts of violence. Sanders expressed appropriate sadness over his supporter's crime. Sanders' usual rhetoric, while bold and often antagonistic, has nothing to do with Hodgkinson or anyone else's decision to use violence.
Curbing the hysterical hyperbole is a worthy goal, and may ultimately result in a more peaceful and reasonable political discourse. But while politicians should be rightly criticized for their policies and their platforms when it is called for, blaming them for the violence committed by individuals who may support them, or their opponents, is wrongheaded and only serves to continue to worsen our considerable political divide.
Chris Machold is a soon-to-be law student who writes about religion, philosophy, current events and political theory.
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