The smell of gun smoke had net yet lifted from an Alexandria baseball field when the calls for unity began. “An attack on one of us is an attack on all of us,” said House Speaker Paul Ryan. “You're going to hear me say something you've never heard me say before,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi responded. “I identify myself with the remarks of the speaker.”
“We’ve had a very, very divided country for many years,” said President Donald Trump, “and I have a feeling that (wounded Congressman Steve Scalise) has made a great sacrifice but there could be some unity being brought to our country.”
“Let’s hope so,” Trump added.
The country’s leaders understandably tend to call for unity after acts of political violence. But unity doesn't mean silence. There are sharp political differences in this country. Important issues like health care and gun violence need debate, and lives are at stake.
The president was right to reject violence. But his own words of recent years linger in the air, as acrid as smoke.
“I’d like to punch him in the face,” Trump said of a protester at a campaign rally last year, before lamenting the passing of the “good old days” when the protester would have been “carried out on a stretcher.”
President Trump invited Ted Nugent to the White House for a private dinner in April. This, after the Southern rocker had for years called President Barack Obama an unprintable name, referred to him as a “sub-human mongrel,” and invited him to “suck on my machine gun.” That was “just an outrageous metaphor,” Nugent later said.
“We have got to be civil,” a seemingly chastened Nugent said after the Virginia shooting.
If that was to be the new far-right Republican stance, not everyone got the memo. Several hard-right commentators said that a “Second Civil War” - capitalized, for emphasis - has begun.
“America has been divided,” Republican Rep. Steve King said when he visited the Alexandria baseball field. “And the center of America is disappearing, and the violence is appearing in the streets, and it’s coming from the left.”
The violence is coming from the left? Nine murdered churchgoers in Charleston, along with several hundred other Americans murdered by the far right, would have been surprised to hear that.
The far right has conducted more terrorist violence, in fact, than any other social group in the United States. That includes radical Islamists, according to data published by the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism & Responses to Terrorism.
Trump, Rep. King, and other Republicans have exaggerated the threat of Muslim extremists, while ignoring the many American lives lost to right-wing terrorists since 1990. The extremist right often targets law enforcement and military personnel. Despite Trump’s fearmongering about immigration, it poses a much greater threat to public safety immigrants do.
“Violence,” wrote the revolutionary writer and psychiatrist Frantz Fanon, “is man re-creating himself.”
Is he right? Are Americans doomed to an endless cycle of political violence? Not if we take reasonable precautions, like other countries do.
Fanon’s use of the word “man” reflects the gendered language of his time. But studies show that mass shooters are more likely to be men - especially men who have committed violence against women. Police records show that James Hodgkinson, the gunman behind Tuesday’s shooting, committed anti-woman violence against his daughter and a female neighbor.
Mass murders at Virginia Tech, in Isla Vista, Newton, Kansas, Colorado Springs, and across the country were carried out by men who had previously assaulted women. And yet, despite his profile and his record of violence, the FBI reports that James Hodgkinson was able to lawfully purchase a 9 mm handgun and a 7.62 caliber rifle.
Republicans continue to block any attempts to pass reasonable gun control legislation. They are also increasingly eager to outlaw peaceful protests. Trump’s Commerce Secretary expressed admiration for Saudi Arabia’s totalitarian repression of demonstrations even as lawmakers across the country are moving to criminalize protest.
That’s a toxic combination. This is a time of growing economic inequality, state violence against people of color, and a fraying social safety net. Protests provide a voice for the voiceless and a channel for change. Without protest, crushed dreams are likely to lead to greater unrest.
“Those who make peaceful revolution impossible,” said John F. Kennedy, “will make violent revolution inevitable. “
Virtually all leaders of the American left, from Martin Luther King, Jr. to Bernie Sanders, have been deeply committed to nonviolence.
“Returning violence for violence multiplies violence,” Dr. King said, “adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars.” Sanders has always spoken of peaceful revolution, as he did after the Alexandria shooting. “Real change can only come about through nonviolent action,” Sanders said.
Leaders of the right should follow their example.
But there must be nonviolent action. As of this writing, Republicans are moving to deprive an estimated 24 million people of their health insurance – an act that will cause an estimated 43,000 needless deaths each year.
These are our lives, and the lives of our families, friends, and neighbors. We have the right to act peacefully to protect them.
We don’t have to reinvent ourselves along violent lines. Instead, we can become a country that changes itself through nonviolent revolution. To do that we will need more voices of dissent. Protest is patriotic. The politicians calling for unity are forgetting a simple principle: When justice is achieved, unity will follow.