Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Scalise, Sanders, Caesar and Me

Words about fighting are not fighting words
Steve Scalise

In light of yesterday’s act of political terrorism, the attempted massacre of a chunk of the Republican congressional leadership, it behooves me to say something about my last post.

I hope I don’t have to join the chorus expressing unequivocal horror at Hodgkinson’s actions, but of course I freely do so. His actions were monstrous, and anyone who sympathizes with them or thinks they were a good way to achieve political goals is embracing monstrosity. I hope and pray that Representative Steve Scalise and everyone else who was injured in the attack makes a full recovery and is able to return to their positions and pursue their political objectives with as much fervor as they had before they were shot.

As for the implications of the attack, I associate myself unequivocally with this piece by David French lauding Representative Mo Brooks’s intellectual courage while literally under fire, standing his ground in defense of both the First and Second Amendments. And I associate myself with equal lack of equivocation with this tweet from Ross Douthat analogizing yesterday’s attacks to the attack on Representative Giffords several years ago:


Our society is a violent one. And sometimes, as in this case, that violence takes a clear political form. But that does not imply that our political disagreements are the cause of the violence. There is no evidence that Bernie Sanders (whom Hodgkinson supported) or any other mainstream Democratic leader has condoned, supported or incited violence or insurrection, and plenty of evidence that they do not. That’s all that should need to be said to exonerate them. For that matter, it is all that should need to be said to exonerate one of the men who could have been killed yesterday, Senator Rand Paul, who has argued that the Second Amendment’s primary purpose is to allow the citizens to take up arms against their government, because saying that in no way implies that now, today, at this baseball field, is the time and place to shoot.

But there is more to say. Our acute politico-tribal polarization does bear some blame, if not for the crime itself then for our inability to heed Anthony L. Fisher’s pleas not to politicize it, whether by calling for gun control or by blaming the other side (always the other side, never one’s own) for excessively violent political rhetoric. I don’t know if political violence is actually growing, but it certainly feels like empathy for it is growing. That empathy is the product of a bi-partisan despair at the possibility of politics. And despair is turn is horribly destructive of our politics, feeding an increasingly vicious cycle.

Violence is the opposite of communication; it is, in fact, an expression of the belief that communication is impossible. So responding to violence by calling for self-censorship has it precisely backwards. We cannot speak as if we are always worried that a madman will misconstrue what we say. What we can do is speak as if we know those who disagree with us, even fervently, are also listening, and as if we want them, and not only those who already agree with us, to hear. And we can reasonably demand in return that if they hear, they will listen to what we actually say.

The Public Theater in New York has come under a lot of criticism for depicting the murder of a Julius Caesar clearly intended to be read as Donald Trump. I defended the production unequivocally before I attended, but now that I’ve seen the show I can defend it on the merits and not just on principle. In particular, I can say that the show is explicitly about that despairing empathy for violence, leading an audience that might well share that empathy to see that it is a manifestation of despair rather than a cure for it. If you want to know more detail of what I thought of it, you can read my write-up at The Week. And if you want to form your own opinion, you can go see the show.

But you can’t know anything about what the show is saying without seeing it, or at least interacting with those who saw it.

Which brings me to my last post.

Anyone who actually read the post knows that it is was not a post advocating shooting anybody. Anyone who actually read the post also knows that the title is a reference to the quote from the movie, “Unforgiven,” which I thought was singularly apropos to the post’s topic.

Most people won’t bother to read it, which is entirely their prerogative. Many people will react to it notwithstanding not having read it, or having engaged with it, which, while equally their prerogative, is also their responsibility, and not mine. So to say that someone who chooses words with care should take ever greater care because a mob of others will fail to do similarly is cracked logic that I will not support. Let those who make it their practice to throw stones take up residence in glass houses first.

The title of the post was pretty spectacularly ill-timed, and if it caused any anguish to the victims of the shooting or their loved ones, I am deeply sorry for my part in causing that anguish. But the post itself was, in my view, timed about as well as it could possibly be.

I will close my quoting myself, from my review of the Public Theater production of Julius Caesar:

As for those who cry that it is irresponsible to depict the assassination of President Trump, I could reiterate, as my betters have already done, the manifold instances of such depictions in the past, and the litany of far more noble leaders who shrugged at the offense in much more dire circumstances. Instead, I will merely note that if there is one thing we should have learned from the rise of Donald Trump, it is that telling people there is something they cannot say, or think, or feel, is the surest way to give those feelings, thoughts, and words greater power, and those who voice them greater chance of achieving power, than they had had before.