As my colleague Jack Crowe has noted, a bombing suspect is in custody. His name is Cesar Sayoc Jr., and as you can see the instant you log on to Twitter, he apparently drove a white van covered in pro-Trump stickers. That is not a vehicle a normal human being drives, and now I’m seeing the right side of the Internet light up with takes saying that he’s obviously “crazy.”
Let’s use caution with that claim. It’s a word that can allow us to wrongly minimize the significance of the attack. There is a huge difference between obsessed, violent, unstable, and truly insane. And that difference matters both legally and practically. When a person who’s afflicted with severe mental illness assaults another person (think of the terrible attack on Gabrielle Giffords in Tucson, Ariz.), the reasons are often so completely disconnected from reality that preventing such attacks is mainly a question of medication or other forms of mental-health intervention.
But there are other kinds of violent people, including angry obsessives. They’re not normal. They act strangely. But they’re also legally and morally responsible for their actions. If you spend any time in politics or the public eye, you encounter them with some frequency. Usually they’re harmlessly annoying, but sometimes they launch harassment campaigns online, sometimes they make violent threats, and sometimes they’ll show up at, say, a pizza place with an AR-15.
The angry obsessive is absolutely vulnerable to being stoked, inflamed, and inspired by angry rhetoric. Speech can inspire violence. It can. It’s one reason why civility and a sense of proportion in your speech aren’t just abstract, sanctimonious, or elitist concepts. They’re moral responsibilities for people with any kind of meaningful platform. Not all listening ears are sober-minded or entirely rational. And when they hear a public figure they admire thunder against his political opponents with extreme language, sometimes they’ll take extreme action in response.
After the attempted assassination of Steve Scalise and more than a dozen other GOP elected officials, I wrote this:
[Gabrielle Giffords’s shooter] was the wrong poster boy for alleged conservative terrorism. But though the Left might have been wrong about him, it was still right about one thing: Political speech can inspire violence.
Conservatives are correct to perceive that the present-day political environment is full of toxic anti-Republican rhetoric and symbolism. A celebrity posed with Donald Trump’s severed head. A theater company shoehorned a mock execution of Trump into Shakespeare in the Park. The Internet has come alive with debates over when, if ever, it’s acceptable to “punch a fascist.” Even otherwise respectable politicians accuse Republican lawmakers of killing people by repealing Obamacare. If far-right speech can inspire far-right violence (and it does), isn’t the obverse equally true?
While it’s not always true that the pen is mightier than the sword, it’s absolutely true that the pen often inspires the hand that wields the sword: It foments revolutions, it motivates murderers, and it radicalizes terrorists.
Notice I used the word inspire, not incite. Incitement is a legal term, and as my colleague Andy McCarthy argues well, it’s absurd to try to hold politicians legally responsible for their rhetoric. Online calls to arrest Trump for incitement are frivolous on their face.
In the coming days we’ll find out Mr. Sayoc’s true mental state and his true motivations. It may well be the case that he suffers from a severe mental illness. Or it could well be that he’s like the people who make ricin threats to senators, shoot up baseball fields, or “investigate” alleged conspiracies with a gun in their hands. It turns out that some people will actually believe the terrible things that politicians or celebrities say, and they’ll act on those beliefs. That’s dangerous. That’s evil. But it is not always “crazy.”