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Ballots, not bullets. A government of laws, not men.
When politicians talk about the nation’s shared values, that’s part of what they mean – a non-violent, lawful, democratic system of government.
What we really get is something much different. Four presidents assassinated plus 15 threatened. Historic assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King. Threats against a Supreme Court justice and his family. And on down to Maine’s former Gov. Paul LePage recently threatening to “deck” a Democrat.
This newspaper editorializes: “Threats of violence are unacceptable. We can’t believe we have to keep saying this.”
You do have to keep saying this, because America has a culture of violence, especially political, and it is getting worse.
It began with the American frontier. In the 1800s, the country had more territory than it could govern, leaving justice to individuals on their own, often using guns for self defense. Violence or its threat could substitute for government.
In 1865, President Abraham Lincoln was the target of an historic political assassination. Under his leadership, the Union had won the Civil War and slavery was soon to be completely outlawed. John Wilkes Booth, an actor, shot Lincoln to dramatically punish him for crushing the Confederacy.
By the end of the nineteenth century, the frontier had ended and government, police and courts functioned throughout the country. But violence continued and the pace of attempts on presidents picked up.
Violence or threats have followed the Lincoln pattern of punishing people for their previous actions. It cannot stop them, but it feels good to retaliate and it may intimidate others from taking similar actions.
Recently, cases seem to be piling up.
Reps. Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger voted to impeach President Donald Trump and serve as the only Republicans on the House committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021 attack on the Capitol. For their independence from blind party loyalty, they became targets for threats.
Cheney spent some of her re-election campaign funds for security. Both receive extra Capitol police protection. She lost her primary. Kinzinger knew he would lose and chose not to run. Violence was both unjustified and unnecessary.
Federal Magistrate Judge Bruce Reinhart approved the FBI warrant to search Trump’s Florida home for government documents taken from the White House. Florida GOP Sen. Marco Rubio falsely inferred that Reinhart was a partisan Democrat. The judge and his family were threatened. His synagogue had to cancel its services because of anti-Semitic threats.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the top federal epidemiologist, corrected Trump’s faulty COVID-19 cure claims, and he and his family became targets of a death threat. This month, his would-be killer got a three-year prison sentence.
U.S. Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh voted to overturn the Roe v. Wade abortion decision. He and his family were threatened. Because of the killing of the son of a federal judge and the Kavanaugh threats, Congress quickly approved added protection for Supreme Court justices and their families.
Most threats and half-baked attacks appear 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, menace could come from the other side as well.
While there is probably no single or simple explanation for the increase in serious threats, they seem to reflect the divisive and unsettled state of the country. Since the Vietnam War in the 1960s and 1970s, many people have come to feel that government does not act for them. They are increasingly frustrated and want change.
The elections of both Barack Obama and Trump revealed strong sentiment in favor of change, almost simply for its own sake. When those elections disappointed such hopes, some became more disaffected. The right wing has grown and increasingly favors a more authoritarian approach that rejects compromise.
Trump and LePage tapped into that sentiment to promote their own political ambitions. The result was to legitimize the breaking of traditional constraints, sneeringly labeled as political correctness. Trump’s followers have felt fewer limits on taking matters into their own hands.
If the country had seemed to be moving away from racism, anti-Semitism, violence and other extreme actions, that stopped with Trump. His sense of unlimited power was transmitted to his followers. A few thousand insurrectionists took over the Capitol, claiming they represented the American people as they threatened to hang the vice president.
Though perhaps questionable, some polls show that a portion of the population believes political violence is acceptable. Not long ago, even conducting such a poll would have been unimaginable.
The political debate cannot get much lower than a resort to violence. The frontier, long gone, cannot be allowed to linger on. The lawless legacy of the once-ungoverned American West gets in the way of the real choice.
How do the people want the country to be governed?
Gordon L. Weil formerly wrote for the Washington Post and other newspapers, served on the U.S. Senate and EU staffs, headed Maine state agencies and was a Harpswell selectman. More by Gordon Weil, Opinion contributor