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Ballots, not bullets. A government of laws, not of men.
When politicians talk about the common values of the nation, that is part of what they mean: a nonviolent, legal and democratic system of government.
What we really get is something quite different. Four presidents assassinated and 15 threatened. Historic assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King. Threats against a Supreme Court judge and his family. And even former Maine Governor Paul LePage, who recently threatened to “bridge” a Democrat.
This newspaper editorializes: “Threats of violence are unacceptable. We can’t believe we have to keep saying this.
You have to keep saying it, because America has a culture of violence, especially political, and it’s getting worse.
It started with the US border. In the 1800s, the country had more territory than it could govern, leaving justice to individuals alone, often using firearms to defend themselves. Violence or its threat could replace the government.
In 1865, President Abraham Lincoln was the target of a historic political assassination. Under his leadership, the Union had won the Civil War, and slavery was soon to be outlawed altogether. John Wilkes Booth, an actor, shot Lincoln as a dramatic punishment for crushing the Confederacy.
By the end of the 19th century, the border was complete and the government, police and courts were operating throughout the country. But the violence continued and the pace of attempts against presidents accelerated.
The violence or threats followed Lincoln’s pattern of punishing people for their past actions. It can’t stop them, but it feels good to fight back and it can intimidate others from taking similar action.
Lately, cases seem to be piling up.
Representatives Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger voted to impeach President Donald Trump and are the only Republicans on the House committee investigating the January 6, 2021 attack on the Capitol. For their independence from loyalty to blind parties, they have become the target of threats.
Cheney spent some of his re-election campaign funds on security. The two receive additional protection from the Capitol Police. She lost her primary. Kinzinger knew he would lose and chose not to run. The violence was both unjustified and unnecessary.
Federal Magistrate Judge Bruce Reinhart approved the FBI’s warrant to search Trump’s Florida home for government documents from the White House. Florida GOP Senator Marco Rubio falsely inferred that Reinhart was a partisan Democrat. The judge and his family were threatened. His synagogue had to cancel services due to anti-Semitic threats.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the top federal epidemiologist, corrected Trump’s erroneous claims about curing COVID-19, and he and his family became the target of a death threat. This month, his would-be killer was sentenced to three years in prison.
U.S. Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh voted to overturn the Roe v. Wade. He and his family were threatened. Due to the murder of a federal judge’s son and threats from Kavanaugh, Congress quickly approved additional protections for Supreme Court justices and their families.
Most of the threats and half-baked attacks seem to come from Trump supporters, people who believe in him, and the myth that his re-election was stolen. But, as in the Kavanaugh case, the threat could also come from the other side.
Although there is probably no single or simple explanation for the increase in serious threats, they seem to reflect the country’s state of division and instability. Since the Vietnam War in the 1960s and 1970s, many people have come to believe that the government is not doing it for them. They are increasingly frustrated and want change.
The elections of Barack Obama and Trump revealed a strong feeling for change, almost simply for himself. When these elections dashed such hopes, some became more disgruntled. The right has grown and increasingly favors a more authoritarian approach that refuses to compromise.
Trump and LePage tapped into that sentiment to further their own political ambitions. The result has been to legitimize the breaking of traditional constraints, sneeringly labeled politically correct. Trump supporters felt fewer limits to taking matters into their own hands.
If the country seemed to be moving away from racism, anti-Semitism, violence and other extreme actions, it stopped with Trump. His sense of unlimited power was passed on to his followers. A few thousand insurgents took over the Capitol, claiming they represented the American people as they threatened to hang the vice president.
Although perhaps debatable, some polls show that part of the population thinks political violence is acceptable. Not so long ago, even conducting such a survey would have been unimaginable.
The political debate cannot go much lower than a resort to violence. The border, long gone, can no longer last. The lawless heritage of the once ungoverned American West hampers true choice.
How do the people want the country to be governed?