Someday, I hope, I’ll sit a couple of grandkids on my lap and tell them about the days when Americans abstained from political violence and settled all our differences peaceably through the democratic process. Or maybe I’ll pick a different fairy tale.
Wednesday’s attack on Republican members of Congress by a gun-wielding Bernie Sanders supporter was an occasion to wonder what we have come to when political differences are seen as grounds for killing. What we have come to, in fact, is the place we have always been. Our history is spattered with the blood of people targeted for political reasons.
It goes back to the American Revolution, which we mistily remember as a noble enterprise navigated by high-minded statesmen. In fact, it incorporated terrorism against suspected loyalists, who were subjected to beatings, torture and lynchings. The goal was not merely to punish the guilty but to intimidate those who might share their views.
The republic was born in political violence, and political violence has figured prominently in every chapter of our national story. We slaughtered the Indians to make room for whites. We fought a brutal civil war over slavery.
Abraham Lincoln was assassinated by a political opponent. President William McKinley died in 1901 at the hands of an anarchist; another anarchist fired at President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1933, missing him but killing the mayor of Chicago.
John F. Kennedy was gunned down by a communist sympathizer. His brother fell victim to a Palestinian aggrieved by Bobby’s support for Israel. Martin Luther King was murdered by a white racist. Two different women with political motives tried to assassinate President Gerald Ford.
It’s not exactly new for at least a few Americans to see violence as a legitimate way to resolve political disputes. Do you think of the 1950s as a safe, tranquil era? During that decade, civil rights activists were beaten and killed; King’s home was bombed. In 1954, Puerto Rican nationalists opened fire in the House of Representatives, wounding five members.
In the 1960s, radical leftists carried out thousands of bombings, some of them deadly. Blacks rampaged after King was killed, and various groups advocated armed revolution. Violence, announced black militant H. Rap Brown in 1967, “is as American as cherry pie.”
Even in our era, it remains a feature of the landscape. Anti-government extremist Timothy McVeigh killed 168 people when he bombed a federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995. Attacks on abortion clinics and doctors have long been commonplace; since 1977, according to the National Abortion Federation, there have been 11 murders, 26 attempted murders and 42 bombings.
The Anti-Defamation League recently published a study documenting 150 right-wing terrorist acts over the past 25 years. Islamic extremists have committed terrorist attacks from Orlando to San Bernardino. In 2015, neo-Nazi Dylann Roof killed nine people in an African-American church in an attempt to spark a race war. Last year, a black sniper angry over police shootings of black men killed five police officers and wounded nine in Dallas.
The case of James T. Hodgkinson, killed by police after he shot four people in Alexandria, Virginia, is shocking but not surprising. Conservatives can blame inflammatory anti-Trump rhetoric, just as liberals have faulted the president and his supporters for their often threatening tone — both with ample cause. But our political climate has not suddenly grown conducive to bloodshed. Our political climate is perpetually hospitable to extremism.
Most Americans, most of the time, have eschewed violence. But there have always been individuals and groups with a fervent faith in the purifying value of guns, ropes and bombs. And there have always been political allies willing to ignore or downplay these dangerous impulses in the interest of a common cause.
If we hope to end this habit of violence, we can’t interpret it as the fresh product of new political battles. We can’t take it as a response to Trump, pro or anti. We have to recognize that it has deep, tenacious roots in a political culture created over time by both the left and the right. Violence is part of our collective political DNA.
This is one of those moments when we can mourn a mythical time of innocence or acknowledge that America’s good has always been liberally mixed with bad. This grotesque outbreak of political violence was a tragedy, but it was not an aberration. The first step to overcoming our flaws is to admit how deep they go.