Tragedies such as the attack on a congressional baseball team cry out for interpretation, and resist it.
By intention or not, the shooter was strategic in his malice, going after one of Washington’s few remaining symbols of openness and normality. Members of Congress — who are some of the best, most interesting people I know — spend much of their time treated either like mini-monarchs or like beggars at the gate, asking for money and votes. Sport is a rare chance to be teammates and friends. Political violence, among other horrible things, makes it harder to be human in public.
Those who work on Capitol Hill — as I did for a decade — live with a certain level of risk. They know that Congress has been used as a stage for dramatic violence before. The Capitol was bombed in 1915, bombed in 1971 and bombed again in 1983. In 1954, four Puerto Rican nationalists opened fire on the House chamber. In 1998, two Capitol policemen were murdered. With each tragedy, more separation: magnetometers, surveillance systems, bomb-sniffing dogs, ugly concrete flowerpots, hydraulic barriers. Greater security often means greater distance. And our politics already seems so distant from normal life. There is nothing to be done about it; but something has been lost.
Attempts to find political messages in attempted murder are usually either excruciatingly obvious — we are an angry, divided country — or obscene. After the 2011 Tucson shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, some liberals tried to pin a portion of the blame on conservatives such as Sarah Palin. In turn, Rush Limbaugh judged the baseball diamond shooter to be “a mainstream Democrat voter.” Some partisans seem determined to attract attention by taking advertising space on someone else’s cross. Can you imagine the unseemly satisfaction in some quarters if the shooter had turned out to be an illegal immigrant or a Syrian refugee? Such salivation is one of the worst things about our politics. Our discourse is being materially damaged by the endless search for Twitter leverage.
At the risk of committing sociology without a license, there are a few conclusions we might draw. Extreme partisanship may not be the direct cause of violence. But political violence acts like lightning, illuminating and freezing the whole political landscape for a moment. And what we see is a ready recourse to violence — punches at rallies, assaults, death threats, violent protests and intimidation. The system seems unbalanced — easily veering off course with every provocation.
The capacity for human evil is always there. But stable societies construct restraints. Some of those restraints are institutional — balancing interest against interest, power against power. In America, such institutions are strong, even under considerable current strain. Yet human beings are also restrained by norms — unenforced and unenforceable standards of civility and respect. We rely on character in countless ways to keep people from destroying themselves and each other. And here all the demonization and decapitation fantasies — all the talk of revolution and warfare against our fellow citizens — have taken a toll.
This type of language isn’t new, of course. But the Trump era has unleashed it with a kind of fury. The routine violation of norms has taken on the nature of an arms race. Each transgression justifies and requires a response. Both sides cultivate a merciless certainty. And, in some cases, they have made anger into an industry — using it to run up the number of listeners, viewers and hits. The trashing of norms has been not only normalized but monetized. This type of hashtag animus is not merely change but decay. The damage is clear. If words can inspire, then they can also incite or debase. We are on a descending path of enmity.
In our politics, dehumanization is far along. This is true against outsiders and political opponents. And it is true against those who govern us. We have often dehumanized the leaders who result from our free choices — men and women, on the whole, of public spirit, with a talent for friendship and persuasion. And this should be a reminder to opponents of President Trump as well. His violation of norms is a reason for criticism and opposition; it is not a justification for demonization. As offense and response spin faster and faster, someone must get off this carousel.
The success of our politics, the quality of our culture and the order of our society are very much at stake.