In their far corners, both the left and the right have always flirted with political violence. Right-wing militia members saying the government will have to pry their guns from their “cold, dead hands”; liberals feting the veterans of the “days of rage.” Nonetheless, after events like this week’s shooting at a congressional baseball practice, the mainstream voices of both sides conveniently forget their own radical factions. They feign naivete and say, “What can be done?”
We’re all too familiar with the ideas that are offered and why they’re rejected.
Gun control might help, but the kind of gun control that would be necessary to make a difference -- mass seizure of the hundreds of millions of firearms currently in private American hands -- looks politically and practically infeasible.
“Media contagion” also seems to drive this sort of violence, as news reports of one shooting inspire the next shooters. But in the internet age, a media blackout of these events would be as impractical as a house-to-house weapons search (even if it weren’t legally and morally questionable…).
But there’s one small step that shouldn’t be dismissed as impractical. The U.S. could end its political culture that celebrates violence, metaphorically or otherwise. After the shooting of Representative Gabby Giffords, for example, Sarah Palin caught a great deal of grief because she had tweeted out an image of a map with crosshairs on certain congressional districts, including Giffords’s. The tweet urged “Don’t retreat, Instead – RELOAD.”
Palin surely did not intend for her followers to literally shoot the representatives in each of the districts marked as targets. Her tweet was part of a long tradition of using martial metaphors in the context of political battles. (In the first draft of this column, for example, I wrote that Palin had “come under fire” for her tweet.)
Such charges have mostly been leveled at the right by the left, but the right certainly has room to make a similar critique today. There has been a more explicit embrace of political violence, and not just from the sort of fringe groups that can always be found in a country of 300 million people. There was our president during the campaign, lauding the idea of beating up protesters, some of whom may have been acting in a threatening manner, but some of whom were not. And of course, on the left, there is the increasing violence of protests, an evolution that has often met with clinical discussions of the history of political violence, rather than the outright condemnation it deserves.
The shooter in Virginia this week was reported to have been a supporter of Senator Bernie Sanders's presidential bid. The senator immediately and unequivocally condemned not just political violence, but also all violence. Whatever you think of Sanders's politics, take notes here: This is how a political figure encourages civil discourse and discourages violence. Not by telling your supporters that if they hurt someone, “I'll defend you in court.”
The left’s past failures to condemn political violence did not cause the shooting this week. I would argue, however, that legitimating political violence is, in general, certainly not going to result in fewer such incidents. The attack on members of Congress should remind us of precisely why our society decided to eschew such violence in the first place. Whatever this man was thinking, it seems that he targeted those men because they were Republicans, which is as clean an example of political violence as you’re ever going to find.
Politics is always unlovely. There’s a reason that more movies get made about wars and revolutionary movements than about the congressional budget process; violence is dramatic and offers the prospect of total victory. Compromise among large groups, on the other hand, is tedious, involves unsavory compromises with people you don’t much admire, and usually at best offers the prospect of walking away from the table with half a loaf.
The main benefit that politics can be said to offer is that it generally does not end with blood on the ground. The alternatives to bloodshed only work, however, when people accept the possibility that they may lose -- that no matter how just their grievance, they will have to swallow their anger and accept the will of the majority if that will opposes them.
Everyone in America has the right to politically organize for a cause they believe in. They have the right to say almost anything in support of that cause and in opposition to its foes. But they do not have the right to win. When people start to think victory is an inalienable right, the fists and guns come out.
If members of Congress cannot get up early in the morning to play baseball together without wondering whether the playing field will turn into a charnel house, then where are they safe? Where are the rest of us safe? Political violence rarely stays contained; it breeds an escalating reaction from the other side. The biggest losers of political violence are often the ones who started it.
However unsatisfied we may be with “politics as usual,” after the events of this week, we should be grateful for every day that those politics save us from something far worse.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Megan McArdle is a Bloomberg View columnist. She wrote for the Daily Beast, Newsweek, the Atlantic and the Economist and founded the blog Asymmetrical Information. She is the author of “The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well Is the Key to Success.”
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