Donald Trump just called his supporters to shoot Hillary Clinton.
Or maybe he didn't. His statement yesterday at a rally in Wilmington, NC, was ambiguous, as are so many of Trump's offhand remarks, at his rallies and on social media. Trump suggested that if Hillary Clinton became the President, only the "Second Amendment people" could do something. His campaign suggested, quickly, that he had not insinuated Clinton should be shot, as many had understood. Instead, it said, Trump had merely encouraged second amendment supporters to go to vote, which seems a stretch. An intense discussion has ensued about what Trump really meant.
That debate is, of course, not irrelevant. It matters to our assessment of whether Trump is an attractive candidate. It matters also for the question of whether Trump's remarks make him criminal liable. (U.S. law criminalizes threats made against the life of a presidential candidate.)
But words can have consequences, and these words especially. What if someone out there takes Trump's words seriously, goes out and actually shoots Hillary Clinton? If this happens, it does not matter what Trump really meant. What matters then is how he was understood. And not how he was understood by many, or most, or even by reasonable people. What matters then is whether Trump's remarks were in fact understood by some to have incited violence. And whether one of those people might act out what he understood.
At least some of Trump's supporters clearly understood him to incite a killing. The video of his remarks shows a man sitting behind Trump in the video, dropping his jaws in disbelief after hearing the remark. That man looked shocked. It must be feared that others understood the same thing, and took Trump's remarks not as shocking but as encouraging.
This creates a responsibility for Donald Trump that goes beyond justifying what he said. He created a very real risk that someone might go out and shoot Hillary Clinton. He must help mitigate that risk even if he feels blameless for causing it.
To explain, let me make a comparison. Imagine you are driving at night, and you run into a pedestrian. The pedestrian now lies on the ground, severely injured. The accident may or may not have been your fault. You will likely claim it was not, and you may be right. But even then the injury is there, and you caused it. Now you cannot now simply drive away. You have a duty to help the injured passenger, at least by calling 911. If you drive away and let the pedestrian die, you are blameworthy even if you were without blame for the accident.
Donald Trump must do the same. He must do more than insist he did not mean to incite violence, because this does not undo the risk that exists now. He must say, actively, that he condemns violence. He must say, actively, that he wants his supporters not to shoot Hillary Clinton. He must do this in a way that shows that he is serious.
This should not be hard. To do so, he need not even admit guilt. He can well stick to his story that he was misinterpreted. He can well continue to blame the liberal media for deliberately ascribing something to him that he never meant to say. He can well claim that the media, not he, is responsible for the situation of danger that he is now mitigating. Trump can well try to claim the moral high road on this. Voters can assess whether to believe him on this or not.
But he must say clearly that he condemns violence against a candidate for the presidential office. Not doing so would be more blameworthy, by far, than the remark itself. Not doing so may have consequences not even he can wish for.
It may sound pathetic, but it seems true. This is not a partisan matter. It is a matter, literally, of life and death.
Mr. Trump, please do what is needed now. For the benefit of your opponent, for your own benefit, and for the benefit of the country. After that, you can continue your electoral campaign. But now you must say, clearly, that you condemn violence against Hillary Clinton. It should cost you little, and it could prevent great harm. Please do the right thing now.