Editorial: Political attacks, abuse always wrong (Nov. 9, 2022)

Scott Swanson

We’ve just finished an election in which campaigning, at least by some candidates, has seemed particularly mean-spirited and less-than-truthful than even what we’re used to in these affairs.

So now that the votes are in, what’s next? How about time to chill.

Because it’s not just bad-mouthing. The instances of not just verbal abuse, but actual violence perpetrated by and on politicians and government officials in recent years should give us all pause.

No matter what one thinks of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, what happened early in the morning on Friday, Oct. 28, was wrong. That was when a 42-year-old man broke into her home in the San Francisco Bay area and attacked her 82-year-old husband Paul with a hammer that the attacker apparently planned to use on Mrs. Pelosi.

The fact that an innocent bystander, in effect, was badly injured in a vicious attack aimed at a lawmaker illustrates how our society has reached the point that government officials are facing greater personal risks than they have throughout most of our nation’s history. Some live in constant threat – even of their lives.

Not only is threatening or attacking a public official a violation of federal law, these attackers, who, we’ve chosen not to actually name here, simply discourage actual or potential candidates from running for or serving in office. In a way, they’re committing crimes against all of us.

Are we overdoing it here, maybe becoming a little hyperbolic? Uh-uh.

Earlier this year, the FBI foiled an alleged plot in which the instigator is accused of planning to assassinate Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh.

Judges and law enforcement officials have become targets in recent years. According to a 2010 report by Main Justice, an independent news organization that covers the U.S. Department of Justice, threats and “improper communications” to federal prosecutors and federal judges more than doubled during the mid-2000s, increasing by almost 26 percent in 2007-08 alone, according to the U.S. Marshal’s Office, which provides protection for those individuals.

Then, there are the attacks on politicians. Anger over COVID-19 vaccines and masks, partisan politics, and school policies has ratcheted up the number of threats against public officials. But should we be inclined to attribute this simply to societal madness that seems to have arisen from the pandemic? Sorry, it goes beyond that.

This has been an ongoing issue in recent years. Last July, an attacker tried to stab Rep. Lee Zeldin, who is running for governor of New York.

The year 2017 was particularly bad: there were multiple attacks on members of the U.S. Congress. Sen. Paul Rand was attacked while mowing his lawn by a neighbor who didn’t like his conservative stances on issues.

Earlier that year, a gunman who was a Bernie Sanders supporter shot five people at a practice session for the Congressional baseball game, including GOP Whip Steve Scalise of Louisiana, who was critically injured.

That was after a woman tried to run Rep. David Kustoff of Tennessee off the road because she didn’t like his vote on a health-care bill.

We should all remember how, in 2011, Congresswoman Gabby Gifford of Arizona was shot while campaigning at a grocery store in Arizona, an attack that claimed six lives, including a federal judge.

These are simply the most prominent in terms of actual damage to persons. Other incidents have included poisoning attempts, cyberstalking, doxing, and too many verbal attacks and threats of violence, including actual death threats, to list here – most of them occurring following the 2016 elections.

President Barack Obama was involved in multiple security incidents, including several assassination threats and plots, starting from when he became a presidential candidate in 2007 as the junior senator from Illinois.

It should come as no surprise that a big factor in all of this is political heat.

According to researchers at Princeton University and the Anti-Defamation League, who have collaborated in researching the issue, states accounting for the highest share of incidents against poll workers and election officials are Pennsylvania (16%), Georgia (14%), Michigan (13%), Wisconsin (10%) and Arizona (6%) — all of which are likely 2024 battleground states.

In the wake of the attack on Pelosi’s husband, U.S. security agencies issued a heightened threat advisory, warning of potential attacks on political candidates, election officials and others.

This is not a clearly partisan issue; although analyses have indicated that Democrats have been more likely to be targeted, indictments of pro-Trump individuals indicate that targets are almost as likely to be Republicans as Democrats.

We’d like to blame this on deranged crackpots, but we can’t – at least not entirely. We all know that inflammatory, irresponsible rhetoric and personal demonization (almost exclusively illogical and mean-spirited) is on the rise, in the public arena and online.

This is all of us, – perhaps not literally, but certainly societally. Seemingly all of us are in a bad mood these days. Dehumanizing rhetoric is bad – for the instigator as much as for the target. Our leaders haven’t been leaders in this area, frequently stooping to a level that could be described as uncouth, in bad-mouthing and demonizing those who don’t agree with them. The guilt runs from the top down on this one.

And it has got to stop, or worse will come. The afore-mentioned commercials (we’re talking mostly about broadcasting here), full of half-truths, logical fallacies designed to besmirch an opponent, and generally sway ignorant and susceptible viewers, while not really anything new, certainly don’t set a better standard.

Talk show hosts, who fan the flames of their devotees with singularly one-sided presentations of facts and opinion, don’t either.

While our nation increasingly seems to be losing the understanding of history that led to the establishment of the principles we have traditionally held dear, the loss of those principles – the freedoms we enjoy and the reasons we have them, refined in the fires of persecution and political instability experienced by our nation’s founders – are threatened even by what’s been described above.

Freedom of speech is a right, but it’s also a privilege that much of the world doesn’t enjoy and which we won’t either if we don’t exercise it with civility. Efforts to curtail Second Amendment rights didn’t get traction until heavily publicized mass shootings started fanning those flames.

Politicians, activists, talk show hosts, journalists have an obligation to be wise in their rhetoric. We all need to be careful to avoid the personal demonization that has run increasingly rampant in our nation in recent years.

Democracy necessarily presupposes that we will have disagreements. The inability to discuss them rationally with fellow citizens, which is who these people are, to recognize that they and we each have dignity in the eyes of God, is unhealthy.