A troubling number of Americans have apparently decided in recent years that guns don't kill people -- political rhetoric kills people. Shootings in America inevitably turn into political feeding frenzies, and one of the frequent practical results of this is to drain and demoralize those who are not inclined to participate in these repetitive, nasty, fruitless exchanges. Over time, more and more of the discourse is ceded to ideologues and partisans who are incapable of seeing them as anything but new skirmishes in the ongoing battle of us-versus-them.
We saw this tendency creep into the left in 2011, when former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was shot by an assailant during a routine public event. Through what can only be called a series of bizarre leaps of logic, more than a few prominent left-of-center pundits arrived at the conclusion that their bête noire of the moment, Sarah Palin, was partially morally culpable for this event, since in 2010 she distributed an electoral map showing 'targets' over vulnerable Democratic districts, including Giffords'. Besides the striking fact that there was no evidence demonstrating that the shooter (whose name I will not write) had ever even seen the hitherto-obscure map, the perpetuation of the idea that a symbolic or metaphorical 'target' on an electoral map could be construed as incitement to violence was a new and unsettling interpretation of the relationship between speech and actions.
It didn't take long on Wednesday to discover that the man who shot Majority Whip Steve Scalise was motivated by partisan concerns and had volunteered for Sen. Bernie Sanders' 2016 presidential campaign. Perhaps it was only a matter of time before many on the right adopted the same attitude so many on the left took toward Sarah Palin in 2011 – and, indeed, in 2017 -- but, somewhat shockingly, similar accusations were leveled by the New York Times, which published an innuendo-laden piece that day about how the shooter's actions serve as a kind of 'test' for Sanders' movement. That one of the most important news outlets in America would unhesitatingly embrace this narrative is proof that it is no longer isolated to the fringes.
The language of competition and conflict often invokes metaphors about fighting, violence, and war. No reasonable person could mistake them for a call to literally employ lethal force. If we value free speech -- if we give speech the benefit of the doubt, if we err on the side of protecting speech -- then we must hold to the idea that rhetoric, no matter how distasteful, cannot be justly perceived as tantamount to incitement to violence.
The right pointed Wednesday to an 'atmosphere of hate' against President Donald Trump and his supporters, just as the left pointed to one against President Barack Obama in 2011. But we are experiencing a not-minor political crisis -- out-of-control polarization, an increasingly fragmented electorate, legislative paralysis, and lingering economic problems from the Great Recession -- and it is hardly a surprise that passions are running high, nor that they occasionally even overheat in tragic ways. A just government can contain those passions and give ordinary citizens space to work through these challenges, and can deal with political criminals appropriately. America has endured major divisions before -- most recently in the 1960s -- and it can work through them again if we honor our shared Constitutional inheritance. Our commitment to free speech, and especially free political speech -- not just in the law but in the culture that sustains that law -- is singular among nations. If we adopt the standard that politicians must cater their rhetoric to the most unhinged among us, lest they become morally culpable for the potentially disturbing actions of those individuals, we will have taken a major step away from that commitment.
To be sure, this does not mean we cannot condemn some speech as irresponsible -- one may legitimately question the wisdom of Kathy Griffin mock-beheading President Trump, or Trump himself suggesting on the campaign trail that "Second Amendment people" could figure out a way to stop a President Hillary Clinton from appointing judges. And this should not be construed as just another call to not 'politicize a tragedy': it is legitimate and appropriate to debate gun control and the state of our discourse in the light of Wednesday's actions. But we cross a line when we assign blame to individual politicians or to factions as a whole. We cannot water down the distinction between words and actions without suffering terrible consequences to our culture of free speech, and therefore to our ability to ultimately deal with the many problems we face.
The us-versus-them mentality compels us to take whatever opportunites are in front of us to take down our opponents -- but some issues are fundamental, and must transcend it: everyone has something at stake in upholding these norms. If we abandon them, we will ultimately only become more like that which we say we are trying to resist.
Alex Knepper has been a freelance political writer for over a decade. His work has been featured or excerpted by outlets including the New York Times, NPR, and CBS News. He is a graduate of American University and St. John's College – Annapolis.