Which Came First – The Violence or The Rhetoric?

Republished on HuffPost

Who or what do we blame? (This is a rhetorical question, by the way).

Because honestly? Blaming is a moot point. On June 14, 2017, human lives were put in unnecessary harms way, in what might have become a devastating massacre if not for The Capitol Police. We can hopefully all agree that there is nothing more devastating in life than the loss of life – especially when that loss is sudden, cut short, tragic, or at the hands of a deranged person with an assault rifle. Unfortunately, it seems one of the only things that jars our country out of a complacent lull anymore is a mass shooting. And then how do we make sense of it? We try to figure out who or what to blame.

All the tired arguments come out of hiding. Arguments like “guns don’t kill people, people kill people,” but then those same people asserting that “people kill people,” block any attempts to keep guns out of the hands of dangerous people. These are circular arguments. They do no good. They always result in finger-pointing with no resolution. And there has been no shortage of finger-pointing from all sides, all day long, which may possibly continue for days. Sandy Hook was, for me personally, the day I lost all hope that measures to make our country safer (with regards to guns) would ever happen. I know I’m not alone in that feeling. 

Wednesday morning at 8:10 a.m., I awoke to the sound of constant vibrations from my phone on the bedside table. My husband was not there in bed with me as usual; he’d had a last-minute, spontaneous backyard “camping” trip overnight with our youngest child, and they were still asleep in the tent. Kind of as a celebration over this being the first week of summer break. My husband is usually the one to get morning texts – not me – so when I do, I always fear it’s bad news. I sat up in bed and rubbed my eyes open to read a string of group texts from some of our family members who live in Alexandria, Virginia. The first thing I read was, “We’re okay.”

I had not yet turned on the TV and had no context until later, after I digested the whole text string and watched some news, but they were letting the whole family know they were safe. The reason we needed to know was because they said they were also at home, which they told us was “about five blocks away from” an active shooter who opened fire on republican lawmakers. Of course, in the part of Alexandria where they live, where this attack occurred “about five blocks away,” is basically almost within view from their front porch. This was a big deal, so throughout the day, especially as I saw maps of what happened where, I realized exactly how relieved I was for many things, including that my family was safe. 

As I listened to the news to learn more, I purposely heard and saw the reports from multiple sources. What happened was clear: the Republican Congressional baseball team was practicing at Eugene Simpson Stadium Park in the Del Ray neighborhood of Alexandria for an upcoming tradition – an annual, bipartisan, charity baseball game – when out of nowhere, James Hodgkinson, 66, of Belleville, Illinois opened fire with a military-style rifle and handgun, injuring five people. Among the injured were House GOP Whip Steve Scalise, a lobbyist, a congressional aide, and two police officers assigned to Scalise’s security detail. A sixth person, Rep. Roger Williams (R-Tex), injured his ankle while helping others take cover, according to Washington Post. 

The US Capitol Police were rightfully commended by Congress, and across the media all day for acting heroically and swiftly, for literally running straight into the line of fire, risking their own lives, to stop what would have been yet another deadly massacre on U.S. soil, by a U.S. citizen; reports of this were corroborated by my family in Alexandria who were stunned by the sheer number of police cars they watched racing through their neighborhood to reach the horrific site – something rarely seen in their neighborhood. City officers arrived at the scene and opened fire, joining Capitol Police officers who were already engaged in a gun battle for over two minutes with Hodgkinson, who later died in police custody at the hospital. 

As soon as the reports started rolling in about exactly who James Hodgkinson was, the insinuations, accusations, and blaming started. When speculating on a possible motive, it was reported across various news sources that Hodgkinson, in addition to having a somewhat troubling past with violence and the law, had also regularly posted to social media about his distaste for our current government. It also came out that he was a Bernie Sanders fan and apparently, a volunteer on Sanders’ presidential campaign. 

With all of that knowledge put together, it was then reasoned all over media that Hodgkinson was not a terrorist but more of a “lone wolf,” and that because of his online presence where he regularly attacked both Republican President Trump and former Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, his attack was most likely politically motivated. (His motives are officially still under investigation.) 

Hodgkinson allegedly posted on social media and in comments sections his “angry rants” about politics, about his ongoing support for Bernie Sanders, and memes that poked fun at, or showed resentment towards the wealthy, including both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. (My God, who hasn’t done this at some point in time – over any person in power?) Barack Obama’s presidency was rife with more than just social media “angry rants.” In fact, there was no shortage of graphic photos and memes all over the internet, depicting effigies of our first black president, hanging from nooses, burning, or wearing a crown of thorns. And now that we have, for the first time ever, a President who has yet to disable his personal Twitter account and has made serious, false accusations there towards former President Obama, where is the bar set? 

There is one essential difference between the two most recent presidencies that’s worth pointing out. In 2008, the anti-Obama angry crowd, for the most part, were white people (the majority) violently protesting against black people (the minority) by damaging/destroying their property, threatening violence, verbally abusing, and physically assaulting black people because of their uneasiness with a minority black man being voted into the office of POTUS for the first time in American history. Dylann Roof, notorious white-supremacist who murdered nine black people in the Charleston church shooting was a prime (albeit extreme) example of that type of white supremacist, violent protesting, and thank God there weren’t many more nut-jobs that went so far for that reason. 

Eight years later, the anti-Trump angry crowd “aka “The Resistance,” were holding almost entirely peaceful protests, marching, or practicing peaceful civil disobedience (with the exception of a small handful of extremist nut-jobs who were not being peaceful). The Resistance, collectively (individually made up of The Women’s March, and every other marginalized group) was protesting because of their uneasiness with a wealthy, white, verbally repugnant man being voted into the office of POTUS who had demonized minorities, and indeed, all marginalized groups, incited violence at his own rallies, and regularly threatened minorities, immigrants, the LGBTQ+ community, and Muslims, to name a few. 

So, where does the blame fall for senseless acts of tragedy? It’s an argument with no absolute answer, and again, a moot point because the damage is already done by the time we get around to having these conversations. Regardless, many Republicans and conservatives took to social media and news interviews throughout the day, seeming to relish the idea that a “progressive” was responsible for this heinous act (though, my gut feeling is they seem to mix up the terms “liberal” and “progressive,” so all their “feels” may have been misdirected). Some of them stated their belief that violent acts like these are born out of the left’s “Resistance” movement. (Though, I doubt those saying that actually know anything about The Resistance, which is all about non-violence. It’s about all the little things we can do, and the type of grassroots programs we can implement to prevent any one person from becoming a dictator of our beloved country). 

Robert Reich, who streams live on Facebook every night and is one of the leading voices in The Resistance movement and Indivisible said it best:

“Whatever the motive of the shooter, some Republicans are saying today that in the era of Trump, they (Republicans) are being threatened as never before. They point to a virulent backlash against Trump that they say is going beyond the bounds of reasonable dissent, and that suddenly – or not – they say the backlash is encouraging violence. Donald Trump, Jr. is among those arguing that – as he puts it – ‘liberal hate speech is leading to violence.’

Meanwhile, lawyers – and I’m talking about particularly Republican lawyers, Republican members of Congress, have had town halls that are rowdy, overflowing, bordering (they say) sometimes on being dangerous. Representative Dave Brat from Virginia says, ‘town halls now often include a thousand people screaming, and it takes only one person off the reservation to cause a problem.’

I just want to make sure we all are on the same page here. Democrats are experiencing the same level of hatred as Republicans, and there are way too many invitations to violence on both sides.

A few weeks ago, on the eve of his election to the House of Representatives, Montana Republican Greg Gianforte beat up Ben Jacobs, a reporter for The Guardian newspaper… Last year, Donald Trump said of a protester at one of his campaign rallies, ‘I’d like to punch him in the face. In the old days, protesters would be carried out on stretchers.’

There’s absolutely no excuse for fomenting violence. There is no excuse for political violence, there’s no excuse for violence of this sort in our country, in our culture, in our democracy.

I’m not blaming the President, obviously. But Donald Trump does set a tone. You remember when he said, ‘Hillary wants to abolish, essentially abolish, the Second Amendment. By the way, and if she gets to pick – if she gets to pick her judges, nothing you can do, folks. Although the Second Amendment people, maybe there is, I don’t know.'”

Of course, Trump’s claim was wrong. Hillary Clinton wanted to enact stricter gun control but had no objection to responsible gun ownership. Regardless, when did it become acceptable for a person seeking to be President of the United States to suggest violence in any way, shape, or form? Was it when Trump referred to the “Second Amendment people,” or was it when Trump said, “I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody, and I wouldn’t lose any voters, okay? It’s like, incredible.” Was it then that we collectively decided that type of reference to violence was okay?

Or was it when Trump said, “part of the problem is nobody wants to hurt each other anymore.” Or when Trump said, “The audience hit back. That’s what we need a little bit more of.” Or when he said, “Try not to hurt him. If you do, I’ll defend you in court, don’t worry about it.” Or when he said, “I’d like to punch him in the face,” or “Knock the crap out of them,” or “I don’t know if I’ll do the fighting myself or if other people will,” or “maybe he should’ve been roughed up?” 

Because if those things didn’t upset us enough (and clearly, they didn’t since Trump was still elected POTUS), then someone’s “angry rant” on social media certainly shouldn’t upset us, either. Further, we can’t demand our citizens to stop lodging their criticisms or complaints about our government on social media, (which we can’t even prove “incite violence,” as much as people wanted to say so in media today), but then allow our own POTUS to actually incite violence at rallies. 

With all of the horrifying things said on the campaign trail and beyond, it’s hard to know exactly when that bar was set for lowering the level of discourse, of taking it from simple to crude to inciting violence. Which came first – the rhetoric, or the violence? It’s impossible to answer, and doesn’t matter anyway. Violence is never the answer. 

As Robert Reich pointed out on The Resistance Report on the evening of June 14th:

“We don’t settle anything with violence. Violence of any kind is totally unacceptable in our society. Real social and political change is achievable – and we know this from the Civil Rights Movement, from the Women’s rights, from gay rights, from conservative movements – we know that real social and political change is achievable only through non-violent action.

It is critically important that all of us continue the fight. The non-violent fight. Mobilizing, and organizing, and energizing those around us to make sure that we have a health care system that protects people. To make sure that we get big money out of politics, to fight for Medicare for all. To fight against some of the anti-democratic, unconstitutional things that Donald Trump is pushing.

But by “fighting,” we’re talking about civil disobedience. Discussion. Debate. Yes, by all means, go to town meetings. By all means, raise your voice. By all means make a ruckus about what the Republicans are doing. But it is vitally important that we maintain civility.” 

The question remains, are politics beyond repair? Lots of talking heads today posed this and other rhetorical questions. Are human relationships beyond repair? Should we beef-up our security measures in public places? What about gun control? What about mental health care? “Technology” was even on the table as the thing that could’ve led to today’s horrific event. Additionally, many people who are “fighting” are not even fighting over politics, but over deserved, basic human rights, which should be available to all of us – and, which should be totally unrelated to politics, but somehow have become intertwined and chaotically weaved into the fabric of this 45th presidency.

It seems common sense, that when you have the President of the United States, lowering the level of discourse in general, when it’s acceptable for him to use racist speech, homophobic, transphobic, misogynistic, sexist, Islamaphobic, and xenophobic speech, with absolutely no consquences, people in those marginalized groups are going to get offended. They are going to push back and hold a person like Trump accountable for hate speech. This is our job as the American people – to criticize, petition, and question our government, because in America, political power belongs to the people. This is our government, this country belongs to all of us, not just one political party. 

It is extremely alarming that the Trump administration has seemed to intentionally weaken part of our constitutional First Amendment rights with regards to freedom of the press. He has done this by vilifying the media, by attacking journalists and reporters in particular (by calling them collectively “fake media,” “dishonest media,” “fake news,” and “public enemy #1”), and by even naming individual journalists and reporters in attempts to strip away their rights, or somehow punish them for merely doing their jobs. He has set a very uncomfortable precedent for the values of free speech and free press going forward.

Like the chicken and the egg, how can we know whether the blame of June 14th falls on rhetoric, violence, technology. or other. It’s a circular argument, and no doubt, people will even comment here with their opinions of what went wrong and why. But honestly, who will ever know what went on in the mind of James Hodgkinson on June 14th? What his motives were, whether he was mentally ill, or perfectly competent? Obviously, he comes off as another extremist nut-job, since most rational people on every side from right to left can all agree that it shouldn’t take a tragedy like this to unite us as one country. Where or what to place the blame on is indeed a moot point. I won’t say it’s Trump’s fault. I won’t say it’s The Resistance’s fault. But I have to admit, it is not hard to see how the unique rhetoric of a Trump presidency provokes people – whether those people are completely rational, or teetering on the edge –  to take drastic measures.

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