The Root of Violence

On June 14 a man opened fire with a rifle at a group of Republican lawmakers as they practiced for a baseball game with their Democratic counterparts, severely injuring Congressman Steve Scalise and also injuring four others. The shooter, who died after being shot by police, was 66-year-old James T. Hodgkinson of Belleville, Ill., a Bernie Sanders supporter who had previously been charged with several crimes, including DUI, resisting a police officer, and battery against his daughter and another woman.

Congressmen Jeff Duncan and Ron DeSantis had actually engaged the man before the shooting, when he asked them if the men on the ball field were “Republicans or Democrats.”

Subsequent investigation revealed that Hodgkinson had frequently posted anti-Republican and anti-Trump messages on Facebook. Examples include these: “Trump is a Traitor. Trump Has Destroyed Our Democracy. It’s Time to Destroy Trump [and] Co.,” “Trump is Guilty [and] Should Go to Prison for Treason,” “Trump is a Mean, Disgusting Person,” “Republicans Hate Women, Minorities, Working Class People, and [Al]most All (99%) of the People of the Country,” “Congressional Republicans Hate Americans [and] Should All be Voted Out of Office.” He once called the Republican party the “Taliban of America.”

The print and broadcast media have been filled with attempts to explain the shooting spree. Many liberal commentators argue that Hodgkinson was another crazy man on a rampage and no one should try to make more of the matter than that. That argument is shallow. All behavior, even insane behavior, occurs in a context, and by examining that context we can often discover events and experiences that conditioned a person to behave as he did. Many conservative commentators, on the other hand, argue that Democrats are directly responsible for Hodgkinson’s violent actions. That argument is fallacious. Only the person who takes action is directly responsible for that action.

However, direct responsibility is not the only kind of responsibility for Hodgkinson’s behavior. There is also indirect responsibility, which other people bear to varying degrees. A minor degree is everyday rudeness or the supporting of violent entertainment, both of which contribute to an atmosphere of incivility. Most of us are guilty of such failings. A considerably more serious degree of indirect responsibility is using language in public that makes violence seem acceptable.

The reason the discussion of Hodgkinson’s case, and similar cases, has been unproductive is that commentators tend to ignore, or reject, the concept of indirect responsibility.

Once that concept is acknowledged, it becomes clear that though Hodgkinson alone was directly responsible for his actions, many prominent liberal Democrats were indirectly responsible because their words justified such behavior.

Lest I be thought too hard on liberal Democrats, let me make my case more more fully:

Hodgkinson clearly did not simply disagree with Republicans on issues. He hated them personally. Note his descriptions of their character—he believes they are not just mistaken but evil; indeed, comparable to the Taliban! Trump, in particular, is a mean and disgusting traitor. Also, Trump “and company” should be “destroyed.” And his exchange with the two congressmen and subsequent acts make clear that he intended to kill Republicans.

Obviously, this demonstrated his belief that Republicans deserve killing. Although it is possible that he formed this belief entirely on his own, without help from anti-Republican hate speech, it is much more likely that he was influenced by that hate speech. After all, his charges against Republicans mimic it. Here are some reported examples of that kind of speech about Donald Trump:

Robert DeNiro calling President Trump “blatantly stupid,” a “punk,” “pig,” “bozo,” and an “embarrassment to this country,” adding “I’d like to punch him in the face.” Kathy Griffin holding a facsimile of President Trump’s bleeding head in a plastic bag. Madonna admitting she “thought an awful lot about blowing up the White House.” Snoop Dog creating a music video in which he shot a clown dressed as President Trump. Mickey Rourke saying of candidate Trump, “I’ll meet him in the hotel room . . . and give him a Louisville Slugger.” Marilyn Manson appearing in a video holding a bloody knife, then the scene shifts to a bleeding headless body dressed like Donald Trump. Sarah Silverman telling her Twitter followers to “Wake up [and] join the resistance. Once the military is [with] us fascists get overthrown. Mad king [and] his handlers go bye bye.”

Here are some examples of hate speech about other Republicans

Michael Feingold reportedly saying “Republicans, whose goal in life is to profit from disaster and who don’t give a hoot about human beings, either can’t or won’t. Which is why I personally think they should be exterminated before they cause any more harm.” Congressman Paul Kanjorski reportedly stating: “Instead of running [Rick Scott] for governor of Florida, they ought to . . . put him against the wall and shoot him.” Montel Williams reportedly saying, “Michele (Bachmann), slit your wrist. Go ahead… or, do us all a better thing [sic]. Move that knife up about two feet. Start right at the collarbone.”

These utterances derive from feelings rather than ideas, but they can be expressed as an idea: “Republicans in general and Trump in particular are so dangerous to America that they deserve to be killed.” I cannot imagine that any of the people mentioned above would offer this as a serious idea. Instead, they likely meant their outbursts to be taken figuratively, as a cathartic for themselves rather than a provocation to others. If we pressed them, they (well, most of them) would say, “I was just making a point, not advocating actual violence.”

But that excuse is naïve. We have known since ancient times that thoughts lead to words and words lead to actions. And modern psychology has provided further insights. One person’s words can lead other people to act. The reason is that all people are influenced to some extent by what they hear and some are much more influenced than others. Moreover, some people evaluate what they hear before they embrace and act on it, whereas others embrace and act mindlessly.

The solution to the growing problem of violence is not to deny anyone his or her freedom of speech. It is to restore our understanding of that freedom in the moral context of respecting persons. That context requires personal responsibility for restraint and civility even in matters of strong dislike and disagreement. Such responsibility cannot be imposed, but it can and should be promoted in homes and schools, and practiced in entertainment, communications, and social media.

Copyright © 2017 by Vincent Ryan Ruggiero. All rights reserved

About Vincent Ryan Ruggiero

Since retiring from teaching, I have continued my work in promoting sound thinking in education and in the general culture. More specifically, I have kept refining my textbooks, four of which have been continuously in print for an average of 33 years. I have also continued to write books for the general public, the latest of which is Corrupted Culture: Rediscovering America’s Enduring Principles, Values, and Common Sense, and I write a weekly column for an online journal.