The Corner

Politics & Policy

Heated Speech, Political Violence, and Red Flags Ignored

Wednesday’s awful shooting gave us lot to discuss as this day dawns, so let’s get straight to it in today’s Morning Jolt:

Three arguments to consider in the aftermath of Wednesday’s awful shooting attack on Republican lawmakers in Alexandria . . . let me know if you think they contradict.

First, attempting to limit political speech or rhetoric because of the potential to set off a mentally-unstable violent person is a fool’s errand, because we can never know what will set off a mentally-unstable violent person.

Ace of Spades and I went at it Wednesday afternoon about this. I completely understand his view that turn about is fair play, and that because so many individuals on the Left have argued that heated rhetoric on the Right spurs violence, now they deserve a taste of their own medicine.

But here’s the problem. I don’t think that talk radio made the Oklahoma City bombing happen, I don’t think violent video games made Columbine happen, I don’t think Sarah Palin’s Facebook page made the Tuscon shooter take his actions, and I don’t think crazy rumors posted on Facebook made that guy bring a gun into that Adams Morgan pizzeria. In each of those cases, an individual made the conscious choice to set off a bomb or pick up a gun and shoot at people. I think blaming these outside forces amounts to letting the perpetrator off the hook for his own actions and scapegoats a politically-convenient target.

One of the sharper bits of social commentary on this topic came in the cinematic, er, classic, Scream 2, where a murderous film student boasts: “I’ve got my whole defense planned out. I’m going to blame the movies… Can you see it? The effects of cinema violence on society! I’ll get Dershowitz or Cochran to represent me. Bob Dole on the witness stand in my defense. Hell, the Christian Coalition will pay my legal fees. It’s airtight, Sid. I’m an innocent victim.”

So as satisfying as it might be to make Bernie Sanders squirm at the thought that his words may have driven the Alexandria shooter to take his actions, making that accusation requires asserting something that we don’t think is true. We didn’t think that conservative political rhetoric incites violence, so why should we contend that liberal political rhetoric incites violence, unless we just really enjoy embracing hypocrisy?

I should be fair to Ace’s argument; he thinks that if the Right applies the same standard to the Left, the Left will realize how unfair and unjust it is to be blamed for a crime you had nothing to do with, and abandon the belief that political rhetoric incites violence. If I thought it would work, I would be more supportive. I think the more likely outcome is that the Left takes this argument on the Right as concurrence, and moves to restrict political rhetoric, particularly that of conservatives, because of the now bipartisan agreement that rhetoric incites violence.

Of course, then this morning the New York Times editorial board insisted “the link to political incitement was clear” in Tucson and “there’s no sign of incitement as direct as in the Giffords attack”, even though the shooter was a paranoid schizophrenic who believed that grammar was part of a vast government conspiracy for mind control.

Fine. If that’s the way the game is going to be played, if prominent liberal voices are going to blame political perspectives even in situations where it has been proven as a non-factor in a court of law, then go get them, Ace.

Two: The Double Standard on Political Violence

Second, there has been a double standard on how our society deals with politically-motivated violence, and while there is so far nothing indicating this is a primary cause of the awful crime committed Wednesday, it is dangerous to cultivate a perception that certain kinds of political violence are justified or less wrong.

In light of Wednesday’s shooting, does anyone want to revisit the government and  university response to violent mobs on Berkeley’s and Middlebury’s campuses?

At Middlebury College, the administration punished 67 students with consequences “ranging from probation to official college discipline, which places a permanent record in the student’s file.” That sounds somewhat serious, but remember what actually happened when Charles Murray visited campus:

Most of the hatred was focused on Dr. Murray, but when I took his right arm to shield him and to make sure we stayed together, the crowd turned on me. Someone pulled my hair, while others were shoving me. I feared for my life. Once we got into the car, protesters climbed on it, hitting the windows and rocking the vehicle whenever we stopped to avoid harming them. I am still wearing a neck brace, and spent a week in a dark room to recover from a concussion caused by the whiplash.

That is a violent assault. This is not student misconduct, this is a crime.

In Berkeley, only one person was arrested during a violent riot, and police were explicitly told to have a ‘hands off’ approach:

Only one person was arrested in the mayhem that injured six people – prompting criticism of training for campus police at the entire University of California system that emphasizes officer restraint and patience during protests in the name of protecting students’ free speech rights.

“The UC ‘hands-off’ approach was to the citizens’ detriment and the officers’ detriment in this situation,” said John Bakhit, a lawyer for the union representing about 400 of the system’s police officers.

Officers should have been given more discretion to prevent the vandalism and violence and make arrests at the Berkeley protest, Bakhit said.

“The frustrating thing for the police officers is that they weren’t allowed to do their jobs,” he said.

If universities and local police authorities unwilling to address violent students and protesters, doesn’t that fuel the perception that some sorts of politically-based violence are acceptable?

How about when The Nation runs a piece calling the sucker-punch of Richard Spencer “pure kinetic beauty”? Violence against people you disagree with is okay, as long as the target’s views are odious enough? Is that the new rule? Because I’ll bet there are plenty of people find the views of The Nation editors odious.

Three: Why Are We Always Hearing About Red Flags When It’s Too Late?

Third, preventing future attacks like this requires less in the realm of adjusting political rhetoric and a lot more in the realm of getting law enforcement, the judicial system, and other authority figures to take violent and threatening behavior seriously before it escalates to a mass shooting. The Alexandria shooter is just the latest in an abominable string of shooters and dangerous criminals who have committed multiple serious felonies and raised one red flag after another, only to be ignored by “the system.”