A Dangerous Moment For America

Disagreement is part of our political system, but shooting at people is not.

Members of Congress hold office because they were chosen through free and fair elections. Those elections are often fraught with inflammatory rhetoric, half-truths, and outright lies, but in the end voters have the final say. Wednesday’s attack on members of Congress was an attack on our entire political system, but the greatest danger lies in how we as a nation choose to respond to it.

If we choose to believe the victims deserved it, then we are inviting more attacks in the future by granting legitimacy to this one. It doesn’t matter if Senator Rand Paul once tweeted that we have guns not for hunting but so we can shoot at the government if it becomes tyrannical, nor does it matter if Congressman Scalise ever voted against legislation to prevent mentally ill people from gaining access to firearms. Disagreement is part of our political system, but shooting at people is not.

The danger lies in different political tribes rejecting violence against their own while approving of violent acts against all others. Once violence is accepted as a legitimate means by which to achieve political objectives then as a nation we’re moving away from politics and towards open conflict. Of course, violence against elected officials in the United States isn’t new. Four presidents and 14 members of Congress have been assassinated while in office. But over a period stretching for more than 200 years, those numbers are fairly small and such attacks uncommon. Significantly past attacks on elected officials were universally condemned by the American public.

The baseball field shooting differs because several members of Congress were targeted, not just one representative, and because condemnation of the shootings has not been universal. Since the shooter was killed by police, his exact motives may never be known. His choice of targets strongly suggests the shootings were politically motivated. Rowdy town hall meetings are just a part of politics, but targeting elected officials for assassination is not. Implying or stating that those targeted had it coming is a mistake because that sentiment authorizes violence in the future. If we tell or even imply to would be shooters they will have a degree of public support, they will be more likely to commit future attacks.

If you disapprove of the job your Congressional representative is doing, then run for office, get elected, and do a better job. Or help someone else run for election. Or use the power of free speech to persuade the public and current members of Congress to change national policies. Or use the court system to strike down unconstitutional laws. None of those options are easy or guarantee success. But all are better than shooting at people. We have better options available to us than violence and a moral obligation to choose them. This is a dangerous moment for America, but one we can overcome if we have the courage to reject violence not only against our political allies, but against our opponents as well. Terrorists are our enemies. Republicans and Democrats are just political opponents.