America’s Social Disease
Friday afternoon, in Portland, Oregon, two women riding the city’s light-rail service were accosted by a fellow passenger.
“Get off the bus, and get out of the country because you don’t pay taxes here,” he said by one witness account. The man also said he “doesn’t like Muslims, they’re criminals,” according to the witness.
One of the women was wearing a hijab. Both were young.
Three other passengers came to the women’s defense. The man pulled out a knife and slit the throats of two of them.
Both are dead.
America is a violent country. We celebrate it, glorify it, enable it. We also condemn it, particularly when it involves non-majority populations, and occasionally when it involves videogames or filmed entertainment.
Time was, condemning violence was a standard expectation of our political leaders. And while the condemnations may have been utterly cynical — offering thoughts and prayers after someone shoots dozens of schoolchildren but doing nothing about it — at least the expectation was met, the least they could do.
Earlier this week, a reporter attempted to ask a Montana congressional candidate about the just-released Congressional Budget Office evaluation of the House-passed American Health Care Act. The question was pertinent, since the candidate — a Republican — had been avoiding similar questions during his campaign, claiming he was waiting for the CBO score.
The candidate responded by what the reporter called “bodyslamming” him to the ground. Witnesses in the room said the candidate had actually grabbed the reporter by the neck.
The incident was reported immediately and spread widely, but no condemnations were forthcoming from Republican leaders. The next day, Montana voters and talk-show callers were applauding the candidate and saying the reporter had it coming.
The candidate was also elected.
Last year, during the presidential campaign, protests frequently broke out at Donald Trump rallies. This was a familiar occurrence, even before the Iowa caucuses, and in Cedar Rapids he came prepared:
“There may be somebody with tomatoes in the audience,” Trump said. “So if you see somebody getting ready to throw a tomato, knock the crap out of them, would you? Seriously. Okay? Just knock the hell— I promise you, I will pay for the legal fees. I promise, I promise.”
Other Republicans were still in the habit of condemning Trump at the time, but when he won the nomination, and then the election, they fell silent. The power they gained was worth far more than the small price they paid.
And yet, Trump didn’t usher in the era he now commands. Six years ago, Sarah Palin issued this rallying cry to her supporters:
“Commonsense Conservatives & lovers of America: ‘Don’t Retreat, Instead — RELOAD!'”
Palin had recently also posted a map of vulnerable congressional districts in the 2010 election. Each district was indicated with a gun target.
One of those districts was represented by Gabby Giffords.
Palin, as was still customary at the time, condemned the shooting. She also denied any indirect responsibility. The poster was the political equivalent of locker-room talk.
Palin’s excuse — Not my fault! — is easy to make, and easy to justify. In any given act of violence, the person responsible is the perpetrator, not the leaders goading him on.
But what leaders say is not without effect.
We noticed a comment on Facebook Friday, not from someone we know, but likely a friend-of-friend: “While there is NO justification for body slamming anybody,” the comment began, “the media has brought much of this negativity upon themselves.”
Condemning the act and blaming the victim? We were impressed. Not just by the novel logic, but by the commenter, who we’re sure considers herself a Nice Person and probably otherwise posts photos of children and pets.
We were impressed because while anyone can condemn a shooting or stabbing, even Nice People are now allowing that bodyslammers have a point.
And you’ll forgive the ugly contrast, but we find that far more chilling than a random murder.
We find it chilling because it shows how deep the new permissiveness has seeped into the population. People who would never see themselves as murderers are now agreeing with the point of lesser violence, if not yet the actions.
They may not be causing the violence, but they’re allowing it to happen, even applauding it. And why not? No less a figure than the President of the United States of America has told them it’s okay to applaud. We’re not even bothering with a pretense of shame.
In such conditions — today’s conditions — a Strong Leader could easily capture the imagination of such a willing public, announcing emergency measures that, while technically illegal or even unconstitutional, would concentrate power in his hands and subjugate opponents.
Especially a leader whose own party already controls all levers of government, and has shown itself unwilling to stand up to him, because of their own lust for power and his very popularity among their constituents.
The common acceptance of political violence chills us because it is a necessary condition of fascism. And America is right on the brink.