At the Congressional Ballgame last week, members of Congress displayed unity and class with both sides taking a knee in prayer before the game and then in the later innings, donning purple and gold LSU ball caps in solidarity with their grievously wounded colleague. Meanwhile, the scoreboard displayed words of thanks and encouragement for the Capitol Police whose serendipitous presence at the GOP practice session thankfully ensured that the only fatality was the shooter himself. Unfortunately, such heartwarming bipartisanship has proven to be fleeting, with efforts on both sides to politicize the shooting over the weekend.
We are beginning to get a picture of the man who committed what was evidently a premeditated and politically motivated attack, and politics are only part of the story. The shooter’s hometown newspaper has uncovered a history of brushes with the law as well as violent and abusive behavior towards a foster child who later overdosed on heroin. It’s clear the Hodgkinsons did not have a happy home, and there is still much we do not know. Similarly, the perpetrator of the Tucson shooting in 2011 exhibited all the symptoms of a schizophrenic psychopath, but that didn’t stop the rush to blame the Tea Party for the attempted assassination of Gabrielle Giffords and the murders of Judge John Roll, Gabe Zimmerman, Phyllis Schneck, Dorwan Stoddard, Dorothy Morris, and nine year-old Christina-Taylor Green. It was wrong then and it’s wrong now.
If the Antifas (many of whom were always anti-government anarchists long before President Trump came on the scene) and sour-grapes radicals on the left are full of vitriol and violent rhetoric, so be it. They are entirely within their rights. Any efforts to stifle law-abiding leftist protests (N.B., window smashing riots are a different matter) and opposition to the government by the right would be just as corrosive to liberty as Lois Lerner’s personal vendetta against the Tea Party. Liberals who complain about Trump’s Big Wall have controlled the fourth wall for decades. Is there any doubt who will benefit most from censorship of political speech? Hint: it’s not going to be conservatives.
That said, when violence is committed against our very republican form of government and duly elected representatives become literal targets as opposed to metaphorical ones, the punishment for anyone complicit in such an attack must be prompt and severe. Jared Loughner is insane, but he will also die in a federal prison, alone and unmourned. James Hodgkinson was dispatched from this life to face a different sort of judgement. This is as it should be. They have already paid the price for their crimes. We should not have to pay an even steeper price by ceding our freedoms. Freedom didn’t pull the trigger. They did.
When a madman attacks self-government, ordered liberty, and the rule of law, our response should be to cherish our freedoms all the more. Whether Democrat or Republican, we have the right, the privilege, and the duty to passionately and forcefully disagree on deep questions of morality, the common good, and human flourishing, because politics is a serious business and we serve no one by obscuring hard truths with euphemism and innuendo. Stunts like Kathy Griffin’s assassination of the President in effigy or the portrayal of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar as a Trump look-alike are shocking, vulgar, and most likely counterproductive, but even so, Patrick Henry famously made a similar comparison. Partisan political rancor, no matter how deplorable, can never excuse a sociopath who already had a propensity for violence long before Donald Trump ever entered politics.
It is no accident that politics uses the language of war. We speak of campaigns, blood sport, target districts, battleground states, and so forth. Clausewitz famously said, “War is the continuation of politics by other means.” At its root, the rule of law is upheld by the threat of violence. These things are all unavoidable, but suppression of free speech only makes actual violence more likely by denying a constructive forum for entirely valid and reasonable disagreements. If violence really is bubbling just under the surface of the public consciousness, it serves no one to clamp a lid on speech and turn a simmering rage into an explosive pressure cooker.
The answer to free speech is more speech. Instead of blocking off those with whom we disagree, we should engage. Instead of shutting our ears to arguments, we should reach out. Behind the mask of depravity and antisocial behavior there is a human being somewhere. If we leave these sorts of would-be assassins in the darkness to fester and nurse their grievances, we lose the chance to prick their consciences and to tug them back towards the light. If the bitterness in politics is largely due to the immense power of the government to impact our lives, the antidote then is not to give the government more power, but to work from the bottom up to change our culture. Therefore, let us draw together and rediscover civil discourse–before it’s too late to avert the next attack.