Immediately after House Majority Whip Steve Scalise of Louisiana, congressional aide Zach Barth, former aide Matt Mika and Capitol Police officers David Bailey and Crystal Griner were shot at an early Wednesday morning baseball practice for congressional Republicans, some leaders in both parties did try to point us in that direction. But before you could say “thoughts and prayers,” others went right back to throwing rocks: New York Republican Rep. Chris Collins suggested that “outrageous” Democratic political rhetoric had provoked the shooter, James Hodgkinson. “The finger-pointing, the tone, the angst and the anger directed at Donald Trump … some people react to things like that.”
Hodgkinson was indeed a passionate critic of the president and the GOP. He was also someone with a history of domestic violence, which is significant, given that 54 percent of the 156 mass shootings in this country between 2009 and 2016 were tied to domestic violence. Years ago, his foster daughter committed suicide by dousing herself with gasoline and striking a match. Recently, he’d been living in his van.
But apparently it had to be political speech that had led to his rampage, and on Fox News, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich pointed to “a series of things, which sends signals that tell people that it’s OK to hate Trump. It’s OK to think of Trump in violent terms. It’s OK to consider assassinating Trump.”
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Invited to answer this assault by broad brush, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi did: “How dare they? (P)robably as we sit here, they’re running caricatures of me in Georgia once again,” in the kind of campaign ads that have “resulted in calls to my home constantly, threats in front of my grandchildren. … So this sick individual does something despicable and it was horrible what he did, hateful. But for them to all of a sudden be sanctimonious. … And I don’t even want to go into the president of the United States, but in terms of some of the language that he has used?”
Donald Trump Jr. retweeted a message implicating a New York production of “Julius Caesar” in which the title character, who is assassinated onstage, is clearly a stand-in for Trump. Which is a mirror image of the accusations that a 2011 shooting that killed six and wounded then-Rep. Gabby Giffords, a Democrat from Arizona, was inspired by a Sarah Palin ad in which various Democrats’ districts were shown covered by the crosshairs of a gun. In an unfortunate piece of revisionism, a New York Times editorial this week drew a straight line between that shooting and the Palin ad.
But just as the former Alaska governor is no way culpable, neither is the director of this summer’s production in Central Park. The idea that Caesar in a blond wig and red tie should be shut down in deference to someone who ran against careful, politically correct speech misunderstands both human behavior and Shakespeare, since the play is a powerful warning against political violence. (Spoiler alert: After blood flows, Rome falls.) Earlier productions in which Caesar resembled Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, George W. Bush and Ronald Reagan were not blamed for animus against those leaders. Clearly, cuts in education and the arts have taken a toll.
To argue that we nonetheless do need to tone it down does bring all sides together — in deriding the “false equivalence” of such a suggestion. But if you don’t think we need to detox, check out last year’s Pew poll that found partisans not only see those in the other party more negatively now than in decades, but that almost half of Republicans and more than half of Democrats view the other party with fear. Which may not lead to mayhem but does lead to more of the same.