Politics & Policy

Speech Is Not Violence and Violence Is Not Self-Expression

A Capitol Police SWAT officer escorts members of Congress and their staffs in the aftermath of the shooting. (Reuters photo: Joshua Roberts)
A reminder.

Pointed political violence struck Alexandria, Va., yesterday, in the form of a shooting at a GOP baseball practice. The perpetrator was one James T. Hodgkinson of Illinois, and his intent was clear: to kill Republicans.

As details about the killer emerged — he was a member of Facebook groups such as “Teminate the Republican Party” and “The Road to Hell is Paved with Republicans,” and he allegedly inquired of Representative Don DeSantis whether the Congressmen practicing baseball were Democrats or Republicans — a disturbing narrative arose from the ashes of Congress’s united front: that, in one sense, the GOP deserved it.

When Ezra Klein, editor-in-chief of Vox, wisely tweeted that “it’s easy to forget what a blessing it is to live in a country where politics rarely leads to violence, and how fragile that blessing it,” commenters erupted in anger and disbelief.

“A bill to take health care from 23 million, killing thousands, speeding to secret passage, also seems violent,” Bloomberg Gadfly editor Mark Gongloff responded.

That wasn’t it. New Republic writer Malcolm Harris (who falsely identified himself as a Vox writer on Twitter) tweeted, “If the shooter has a serious health condition then is taking potshots at the GOP leadership considered self defense?” Others echoed this sentiment, that somehow the hospitalized representatives, Steve Scalise and Roger Williams, had it coming.

This issue here is not just the politicization of an evil act of terrorism. We have known for long enough that the dregs of society will exploit any tragedy for political advantage. The issue is that Hodgkinson’s rampage has illuminated the growing belief that speech can be violence, while literal violence can be speech.

On the Hill yesterday, the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs hosted Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a scholar and FGM (female genital mutilation) survivor, and Asra Nomani, a liberal Muslim activist, to testify on the “tools, tactics, and techniques” of violent Shia extremism. In the days leading up to the hearing, The New Republic’s Sarah Jones slammed the formerly Muslim Hirsi Ali and lifelong Muslim Nomani, arguing that “their extreme views ought to disqualify them from any platform dependent on expertise.” So what if Hirsi Ali lived in Somalia under radical, fundamentalist Islam for her entire childhood? A white American woman from The New Republic knows better, and she knows also that by relaying the facts of life under Islamic extremism, Hirsi Ali is guilty of hate speech.

At the hearing, ranking member Senator Claire McCaskill used her opening statement to slam the president’s budget and to throw shade at Hirsi Ali and Nomani. “Our danger, at least to date, has not been from those who try to slip into this country unnoticed or who try to illegally cross our borders or who are seeking refuge from a humanitarian crisis. That’s not where the danger’s come from. It has come from people who are Americans or people who are legally from this country who have been radicalized. We face a threat from a variety of sources on radicalization including white supremacists, ecoterrorists, ISIS, al-Qaeda sympathizers. There’s a long list,” said McCaskill.

In order to combat ISIS and other extremist propaganda, we must have a healthy dialogue with Muslim and other community leaders to ensure that resources are available to other families and friends that may have concerns about loved ones who may have become attracted to extreme rhetoric. Unfortunately, some of the rhetoric we hear, including from some of the witnesses here today, is at odds with this approach. It is also in complete conflict with American principles and values, and most importantly, it would actually make the United States of America less safe. We need to spend less time stirring up anti-Muslim rhetoric and more time working on these issues and with the majority of Muslims both in this country and around the world who are peaceful and law-abiding. [Emphasis mine.]

While most of the committee members ignored Hirsi Ali and Nomani in favor of the former director of the National Counterterrorism Center, Michael Leiter, Hirsi Ali used her opening to differentiate between spiritual Muslims (denoted by her as Mecca Muslims), political and militant Muslims (Medina Muslims), and reformer Muslims who stand up to militant Islam. This has been branded by Salon as “the soft Islamophobia of Western expectations.”

Hodgkinson’s rampage has illuminated the growing belief that speech can be violence, while literal violence can be speech.

While the morning’s shooting and the Senate hearing may seem unrelated, they demonstrate the upside-down way many Americans have come to think of speech and violence. Hirsi Ali’s innocent speech, though categorically protected by the Constitution, has come to be interpreted as incitement or even as “violence.” After Brandeis University abandoned its plan to award Hirsi Ali an honorary degree, the school’s Muslim Student Association claimed that she “incites and supports insensitivity and irresponsibility.” In a successful online petition to ban Hirsi Ali from an Australian speaking tour, Palestinian playwright Samah Sabawi escalated the accusation, saying that Hirsi Ali’s “incitement can lead to acts of violence.”

And yet when Antifa starts destructive riots and beats up Trump supporters, literal violence is excused as expression or resistance. Even the Washington Post today, in calling the Alexandria attack a “treasonous assault on the legislative branch of the federal government,” paused to point out that “rural areas are overrepresented” and “political money skews legislation.”

There are some extreme forms of speech — such as incitement (which is actually defined as words that directly call for imminent violence) or fighting words — that really can be blamed for the violence that follows. But the notion that passionate political discourse is violence while actual violence can be excused is beyond Orwellian; it’s barbaric. It’s also corrupting

Through this newly minted lens, the shooting almost seems inevitable. Sure, the Left may say violence is never the answer, but they think sometimes it is. They may say love trumps hate, except when an SKS rifle will trump those “inciting violence” more effectively. By the logic that criticizing Islam or supporting Obamacare repeal is violent, the GOP was asking for it, and probably, they deserved it. And who will be allowed to dissent?


The Left Embraces Political Violence

The Roots of Left-Wing Violence

If We Can’t Unit Against Rioting, We Can’t Unite at All


– Tiana Lowe is an editorial intern at National Review.

Editor’s Note: A previous version of this article included a response to Ezra Klein’s tweet by Jeremy McLellan. We have removed the section, as the response had been misunderstood by the author. McLellan is a free-speech advocate who does not condone violence. We apologize for the error and have amended this note to reflect the facts.

Tiana LoweTiana Lowe is a senior pursuing her B.S. in economics and mathematics at the University of Southern California and a former editorial intern at National Review.


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