It happened again. A man with a record of violence aimed his semi-automatic rifle, and squeezed the trigger. The police killed him, but not until four other people, including two police officers, a lobbyist, a congressional staffer and House Majority Whip Steve Scalise were wounded.
Yesterday was the anniversary of an even more gruesome act, the massacre at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando by Omar Mateen. He was carrying a Sig Sauer MCX and a Glock 9mm Semi-automatic pistol. By the time the cops brought Mateen down, 49 people had been slaughtered in the largest mass murder in modern American history and the greatest terrorist act on U.S. soil since 9/11.
Two weeks ago, Jeremy Christian, slashed the throats of two passengers and stabbed another on a light rail commuter train in Portland, Oregon, after they attempted to stop him from verbally abusing two young women, one of whom was wearing a hajib.
These men all had something in common, and it wasn’t the weapons they used. It was why they killed. James Hodgkinson, today’s star killer was motivated by hatred of the President and his political party. Mateen was motivated by hatred of LGBTQ people and had sworn allegiance to the radical Islamist sect ISIS. Jeremy Christian is a white supremacist and neo-Nazi and hates anyone who is not a white American. Each of them killed because their twisted hearts saw terror as the only way to make their point: the world is not going their way and killing is the only way to make it right.
The Twitterverse quickly blew up today, as it does every time one these atrocities happens, with 140 character diatribes blaming Democrats or Republicans, or liberals or conservatives, depending on who was tweeting and which tribe they identify with. (Unlike Orlando or Portland, Islam was not a factor in today’s terrorist act, though it was not far from anyone’s mind. American Muslims were glad that Hodgkinson was an old white man, but they were the only ones breathing a sigh of relief.)
Supporters of the President noted that in the past two weeks, there have been two major artistic depictions of the death of the President, thus normalizing Presidential assassination. The first, wherein comedian Kathy Griffin holds up a fake severed Donald Trump head dripping fake blood was tasteless and disgusting. It may have ended her career, but she wasn’t very funny anyway. The second, a Shakespeare in the Park production of Julius Caesar dressed as the President, could only be viewed as pro-assassination if you’ve never seen the play. Julius Caesar is less about the assassination of the Roman ruler than it is about why political violence destroys the thing one is supposedly defending. The opposition noted that the President and his supporters had spent much of the campaign and much of the first five months of his term spewing rhetoric laced with violent images towards his opponents.
The politics of the United States of America is deeply polarized, and fueled by deep resentments of other people. But that is not a new problem. The American Revolution turned a disagreement over taxes and import duties into a great Manichaean struggle of freedom over tyranny. ISIS has turned the resentment of Muslims against corrupt regimes and former colonial powers who support those regimes into a titanic clash of modernity against medievalism. White nationalists have turned their fear of non-European Christian descended people into a war against immigrants, Jews, Muslims, blacks and Hispanics.
Was Democratic rage at the Trump Presidency responsible for Hodgkinson’s terrorist act? Was the theology of ISIS responsible for Mateen’s murder of 49 innocent people in Orlando? Is the rhetoric of white supremacy responsible for Christian’s murder of two people who were just trying to do the decent thing?
Simply put, no. Each of the murderers is responsible for his own actions, for the hatred in his own heart, for the twisted belief that killing people is somehow a higher calling. They cannot claim that they are innocent, that they are “freedom fighters,” that their shedding of innocent blood is somehow a greater good. It’s murder. It’s terror. It’s despicable. It’s evil.
Political rhetoric doesn’t kill, however shrill or hateful it becomes. Only a person who takes up arms against another kills that person. He alone bears the responsibility for that murder. That is not to say that it is acceptable to advocate violence against others, or to declare that one’s political opponents are enemies of the State. Constitutionally protected freedom of speech comes with the personal responsibility to use it wisely, even as it does in the constitutionally protected right to bear arms. We may argue over the limits of those rights (child pornography is no more protected than is advocating the assassination of an elected leader and maybe we don’t need to let suspected terrorists or mentally ill people buy semi-automatic weapons), but those arguments should be civil and thoughtful, no matter how vigorously we defend our positions—or work to have them implemented.
Perhaps today’s tragedy will remind us that E Pluribus Unum is still our motto as a nation and that it wouldn’t hurt to start acting like it.