A depressing feature of modern American life is the regularity with which angry, broken people trade obscurity for ignominy by shooting into a crowd. Almost as depressing — and unfortunately, almost as regular — is how quickly partisan pundits rush to explain that the real culprits are not troubled people with guns, but conservative commentators and politicians. Not because they oppose gun control, mind you, but because their hateful rhetoric incites troubled people to violence.
On Nov. 19, a deranged person named Anderson Lee Aldrich allegedly walked into an LGBTQ nightclub in Colorado Springs and began shooting, killing five people and wounding 19 others. Before Aldrich had even been arraigned, commentators at sites including the Daily Beast, the New York Times and NBC News were confidently suggesting that here was probably another right-wing loon inspired to terror by the hateful rhetoric of politicians.
The pattern was familiar from earlier attacks, including the 2011 shooting of Arizona Rep. Gabby Giffords — initially blamed on a Sarah Palin campaign ad — or the 2016 massacre at Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando, which was instantly chalked up to homophobia. And again, the facts almost immediately complicated this narrative.
The man who shot Giffords was afflicted with paranoid schizophrenia with no clear political views; Pulse appears to have been chosen at random by an Islamic State follower who might not have even realized the club was gay. And last week, Aldrich’s attorneys informed the court that their client identifies as nonbinary and uses they/them pronouns.
Possibly Aldrich has belatedly decided to adopt an identity-of-convenience in hopes of avoiding a hate crime charge on top of the murder rap. But it’s also quite possible we’ll learn that Aldrich has indeed long-identified as nonbinary, and the pundits who rushed to blame their political enemies were slinging baseless slanders for which a groveling apology is now due.
Which underlines the absurdity of the whole premise: If you can’t reliably discern the causes of an attack after it happened, how can you possibly argue that your political opponents should have known beforehand?
But then, logical analysis isn’t really the point. If it were, pundits would be trying to apply these arguments with consistency.
On June 14, 2017, an avid follower of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) shot five congressional Republicans who were practicing for a charity baseball game, seriously wounding Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.). Despite Sanders’s reputation for fiery political rhetoric (two weeks later he would tweet, “Let us be clear and this is not trying to be overly dramatic: Thousands of people will die if the Republican health care bill becomes law”), left-wing pundits did not exactly flood the zone with complaints about the dangers of demonizing your opponents.
More recently, after a draft opinion overturning Roe v. Wade leaked from the Supreme Court, an armed man carrying a gun, a knife and zip ties showed up at the home of Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh. Apparently flummoxed when he realized Kavanaugh was being guarded by U.S. marshals, he called 911 and confessed to a murder plot.
This followed a great deal of heated rhetoric: “SCOTUS isn’t just coming for abortion - they’re coming for the right to privacy Roe rests on, which includes gay marriage + civil rights,” announced Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.). A group called Ruth Sent Us published justices’ home addresses and even encouraged people to target anger at Justice Amy Coney Barrett’s kids at their school. Yet we were not overwhelmed with left-wing pundits anxiously questioning whether hyperbolic predictions of a coming dystopia risked inspiring assassinations.
There is a reason no one attempts to apply this standard evenly: because if you blame passionate argument for the acts of lunatics, political debate ultimately would become impossible.
There are, of course, situations where it is appropriate to hold people accountable for the direct and probable results of their speech. Left-wing pundits and I would all agree that former president Donald Trump’s behavior after the 2020 election amounted to incitement of insurrection and merited impeachment. I think it’s possible that groups such as Ruth Sent Us were equally complicit in what almost happened to Kavanaugh. But that’s not the kind of speech we’re discussing in most of these cases. Usually, we are talking about ordinary political argument — hyperbolic, nasty and biased, maybe, but still, just argument.
Such diatribes can indeed inspire deadly consequences. But to a troubled mind, almost anything can seem like a justification for murder, when carried to its illogical conclusion. Are the environmentalists who warned against habitat destruction to blame for the environmental militant who decided we needed to “disassemble civilization,” and took three hostages during an armed standoff at Discovery Channel?
Of course not. Telling people they are responsible for even the unlikeliest consequences of their speech isn’t a coherent principle; it’s just a euphemism for “shut up.” Which sounds splendid when you’re saying it. But as soon as you see it applied to speech on your own side, you recognize that it is ludicrously unworkable. In a free society, people have to be able to say what they think — and their opponents have to be able to muster counterarguments, rather than accuse them of murder.