There is a familiar crackle in the air—a charged, angry muttering. Leaders rally at the banks of a Rubicon that none can see but all can sense. Language becomes coy. Meaning hides behind veils, leaving a lasting impression that is irresistible precisely because we cannot pin it down.
Talk turns to rigged elections and racist cops, to gun rights and voting rights, to us and them. “Someone has to do something.” But when someone does, the veils disappear. Speakers, once seductively vague, become granite blocks of offended sensibility.
I feel the crackle in the air, so familiar and so quickly forgotten, and wonder, who owns violence?
We know what we are supposed to say. The First Amendment is a right of inestimable value in a free society, bestowed upon us by the Founders. The man who mistakes protected speech for a call to violence has only himself to blame. But I have come to see this as dissembling, an act of inexcusable cowardice. Those who summon violence, whether on the Right or Left, own it.
I am disgusted by how quickly we forget. We have been here before, and Donald Trump’s oblique invitation to “Second Amendment people” is nothing new. In early January 2011, a crowd stood in the parking lot of a grocery store outside Tucson as Democratic Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords led a constituent meeting called, “Congress on Your Corner.” As the event unfolded, a young man named Jared Loughner sidled next to Giffords, pulled out a handgun, and shot her in the head. He then turned the gun on the crowd, killing six, including a federal judge and a nine-year-old girl, and wounding more than a dozen others.
Then as now, the Giffords shooting took place in a hyper-charged atmosphere of political partisanship, and many wondered whether a pervasive environment of violent rhetoric could have motivated Loughner’s rampage. Attention focused on former Republican Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin, who had released a fund-raising appeal in March 2010 using rifle cross hairs to mark the districts where she hoped a Republican would unseat a Democrat, including the district of Representative Giffords, and had encouraged her supporters with remarks like, “Don’t retreat. Reload!”
Palin may have attracted the most attention, but she was hardly the most irresponsible. For weeks, conservative commentators had filled the public square with even more inflammatory imagery and language, which led Tucson Sheriff Clarence Dupnik after the shooting to condemn “the vitriolic rhetoric that we hear day in and day out from people in the radio business and some people in the TV business.” Yet Palin, because of her visibility, undoubtedly incurred the strongest condemnation. A headline in the New York Daily News charged that “the blood of Congresswoman Giffords” was on her hands.
Conservatives denounced these attacks in the language we have all been conditioned to repeat. Whatever happened to free speech and the First Amendment? Whatever happened to individual responsibility? Criminals are responsible for their own behavior, and only a liberal would shift blame for this tragedy away from the obviously mentally ill Loughner. In a statement released on her Facebook page entitled, “America’s Enduring Strength,” Palin disavowed any responsibility for Loughner’s actions, dismissing him as “a single evil man,” and “a deranged gunman.”
The talismanic insistence on individual responsibility is ironic, since Palin and her like angrily deny responsibility for the violence they summon. In their world, responsibility apparently cannot be shared. But as long as we are taking an expansive view, we must also point an accusing finger at the Left. As we contemplate the inexcusable murder of police officers in Baton Rouge and Dallas, we should recall another shooting more than 18 months ago. On December 20, 2014, Ismaaiyl Brinsley walked up to a squad car in Brooklyn and fatally shot two New York police officers, Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos.
Then, as now, some wondered whether Brinsley was driven by the violent rhetoric that appeared after the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson and Eric Garner in Staten Island. Some of this language was inexcusably inflammatory. This time, however, the finger-pointing came from the Right. Conservatives blamed protesters and politicians on the Left for creating an environment that excused and encouraged violence against law enforcement.
Once again, the Left did its best to distance itself from Brinsley’s carnage. They observed that he, like Loughner, was obviously unstable, as though pointing this out were sufficient to excuse prior calls for violence. Besides, they wonder, whatever happened to the First Amendment and free speech? Whatever happened to individual responsibility? Like the Right, some on the Left apparently believe that responsibility cannot be shared.
Why do people refuse to accept that violence is a predictable if unintended consequence of inflammatory, denunciatory rhetoric? In some unknown but absolutely predictable number of cases, calls for violence—however veiled, however thinly disguised—will lead people to be violent. Why do people shy from this self-evident truth?
I do not know the answer to this question, but I no longer care. Whether it is an angry white man behind a podium in Wilmington, North Carolina, or an angry black man behind a megaphone in Wilmington, Delaware, if you summon violence, you own it. You are morally responsible for the harm that comes to pass.
And do not accuse me of trying to silence legitimate criticism. I have spent the better part of a long legal and academic career attacking the legal inequity and moral bankruptcy of the criminal justice system and the national security state. Some cases may be harder than others, but all but the willfully ignorant recognize the difference between a demand for change—even radical transformation—and a call to arms.
To those of you who protest the many wrongs in this world, your anger may be justified and your cause may be righteous, but your call to violence is not. Your violence is never justified. And make no mistake: it is your violence, regardless of who fires the shot.