We might be heading down a dangerous path.
The shooting in Alexandria, Virginia that targeted the Republican congressional baseball team was a horrific event.
Violence is always unwelcome. Being helplessly caught in the cross-hairs of an active shooter, with no cover or defense, has to be a terrifying situation. I empathize with every person present and their families, and hope for a full recovery of the victims, including staffers, police officers, and Representative Steve Scalise, the majority whip of the House of Representatives who hails from my home state, Louisiana.
This shooting is compounded by the fact that it appears to be an act of political violence—just before opening fire, the shooter, James Hodgkinson, asked whether this was the Republican congressional team or the Democratic one.
We are fortunate to live in a country where violence seldom meets politics. Politics and violence come into contact so infrequently here that many Americans take it for granted. Incidents like this remind us how fortunate we are to live in a country where the body politic is divorced from violence.
There can be no freedom when politics are coerced by violence.
Obviously, the perpetrator, who has since deceased, was deranged. No one in their right mind would take to shooing at unarmed, defenseless people. But in an effort to both curb mass shootings and ensure that our politics remain devoid of violence, we must ask ourselves what we can do to deter such acts in the future.
Note I said “deter,” not eliminate. I understand no measure is foll-proof, but active measures can be taken to reduce the likelihood of mass shootings and acts of political violence.
The shooting this morning just outside the capital is a perfect example of why Kathy Griffin’s photo shoot holding the decapitated head of Donald Trump was unacceptable. I am not laying this shooting at her feet. I do not believe she intended any malice. I think she is a comedian who blurred the line between sensationalism and basic decency in an effort to garner attention and to make a buck and a political point.
Perhaps the line she crossed is somewhat—maybe even more so for a comedian. For example, the Der Spiegel cover depicting Trump holding the decapitated head of the Statue of Liberty is, in my opinion, perfectly acceptable political commentary: it insinuates “acts of violence” against the principles upon which our government rests—political malpractice, if you will. It is symbolic.
The Kathy Griffin photo shoot lacks symbolism. It fails to point past its obvious meaning. Griffin’s photo shoot, even if it was not her intent, suggests that violence is an appropriate form of recourse against Trump. It indicates that Trump is so bad, so unacceptable, that his death is warranted, even welcomed—even if, once again, it was a tasteless attempt to be shockingly funny.
Therefore, the immediate disapproval with which her actions were met and the subsequent consequences were appropriate and absolutely necessary in order to maintain certain levels of decency in public discourse.
The threat of political violence can never be tolerated in a free society. Political violence uses fear to manipulate the civic process. This is the definition of terrorism. Freedom and political violence cannot occupy the same space. One cancels out the other. We must guard the body politic against the threat of violence. To do that we must guard our thoughts and words against violent innuendo.
American government is a two-party system. It has been since its inception. The two-party system dates back to the vicious rivalry between Alexander Hamilton’s Federalist Party and Thomas Jefferson’s Democratic-Republican Party. In order for a two-party system to work, however, each side has to view the other as the “loyal opposition.” The idea of loyal opposition means that each side recognizes the other as loyal to the democratic principles upon which our government is established, but there is space for dissent over proposed policies from either side.
When the notion of loyal opposition breaks down, political violence ensues. Left unchecked, this may lead to civil war—see American history from 1861 to 1865.
I disagree with 95 percent of the policies advocated by the present-day Republican Party. However, its members have been enfranchised, democratically, by the terms laid out in the U.S. Constitution. They are accountable to the constituencies who elected them.
In a democratic state, we fight these political disagreements at the ballot box with votes, not violence. And we win at the ballot box by advancing our arguments through public debate, organizing, and protesting.
In this war of ideas, goodness and justice must prevail. As demonstrated by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., this is possible under the most dire of circumstances, without having to prostitute decency or resort to violent innuendo.
The opposing party is a political adversary, not a physical enemy. They are co-participants in the American experience.
Even now, in this most politically-charged time of my life, the opposing party is not an enemy of the State.
There are accusations circulating through the press and floating around the public arena that the President of the United States—or perhaps some of his campaign aides—colluded with Russia to meddle with an American election. I am a vociferous Trump critic, and remain open to the idea that he or members of his campaign may have colluded with Russia. I believe we should have public discussion and debate about this, as well as tax reform, healthcare, and foreign policy.
Even still, threats of violence against him or his supporters are unacceptable. A special prosecutor has been named to find answers to those questions regarding Russia. We must allow that investigation to administer justice and resist temptations to allow our standards of decency to slip. And even though Trump has himself called for violence at rallies, we cannot overcome such callousness by going tit-for-tat. We can only do so by rising above it.
Casual quips on social media about assassination or political violence are not acceptable. It is true that the overwhelming majority of people can issue and receive such tasteless comments without any thought of acting. However, there are those perverse minds that are ratcheted up by violent rhetoric. They see it as an invitation to act or as the normalization of something they have been contemplating, thereby a tacit endorsement of violence.
Obviously, no one means it as such. It is careless. Kathy Griffin did not intend for her photo shoot to be taken as an invitation for violence, but it is essential that we reject such images and language because there are those who will take them that way. And since only an unbalanced mind would resort to political violence, we have to consider how such minds interpret our words and actions .
The other side of the Alexandria shooting is all too familiar. It is another mass shooting. It is another example of a deranged person with easy access to high-powered weapons firing into a crowd of defenseless people.
America knows—all too well—the drill following a mass shooting. Whether it be on a baseball field, in a movie theater, or at a school, prayers pour in. I am not opposed to prayer. But prayer is empty unless it is supplemented by action. Prayer without action divorces spirituality from the world of responsibility—and in the case of gun violence, for reasons of political expediency.
We can pray to be free of stress or anger, for example. However, there will be no increase of peace, serenity, love, or compassion unless we are willing to identify and address the causes and conditions that give rise to stress and anger in our daily lives.
Similarly, we can pray for those affected by the shooting today—and indeed, they may find some consolation in the fact that millions of people are praying for them. But unless we are willing to identify the causes and conditions that gave rise to the events of this morning and arouse the political will to address them, there will continue to be an epidemic of gun violence, as our recent history demonstrates.
It is a relapsing cycle of gun violence, prayers, and fatuous debate with no end in sight—unless we are willing to make common sense reform.
Author: Ben Riggs
Image: AK Rockefeller/Flickr
Editor: Callie Rushton
Supervising Editor: Danielle Beutell
Supervising Editor 2: Lieselle Davidson