What keeps people who are consumed by anger from acting violently? In a civilized society, a key constraint is the belief that violence, apart from self-protection, is unjustified, ugly and will be punished.
Our legal system keeps violence in check. Laws spell out consequences.
That, sadly, may not be enough today.
We are troubled by things prominent and influential people are saying in the wake of the indictment of former President Donald J. Trump on charges he illegally kept classified national security files, obstructed attempts by the government to get them back and made false statements. William P. Barr, Trump’s former attorney general, said in a Fox News appearance Sunday the indictment is “very, very damning.”
They may not intend to incite violence, but the heat of this Republican rhetoric could, over time, melt away inhibitions that keep people from hurting others.
Kari Lake, who ran unsuccessfully last year for governor of Arizona, just reminded Republicans at a Georgia convention that the former president’s loyalists own guns. “If you want to get to President Trump, you are going to have go through me, and you are going to have to go through 75 million Americans just like me,” Lake said. “And I’m going to tell you, most of us are card-carrying members of the N.R.A. … That’s not a threat, that’s a public service announcement.”
That is not public service. And Lake wasn’t alone signaling the possibility of violence. A fellow Republican in her home state, U.S. Rep. Andy Biggs, posted the words “Eye for an eye” on Twitter.
A survey of recent political rhetoric by The New York Times found those and similar comments. “This. Means. War,” an outlet known as The Gateway Pundit posted. As the newspaper noted, similarly heated language surfaced after the FBI searched Mar-a-Lago, Trump’s home and resort, in connection with the probe of classified documents. Days later a man with a semiautomatic rifle died in a shootout after he tried to get into an FBI field office in Ohio.
In an Instagram post, Kimberly Guilfoyle, who is engaged to Trump’s eldest son, posted a photo of the former president with the words, “RETRIBUTION IS COMING.”
No one is more vocal than the defendant himself, or as apt to heighten tensions. In Georgia on Sunday, Trump said he’s engaged in an “epic struggle to rescue our country from the sinister forces within who hate it.”
Not surprisingly, security will be tight Tuesday in Miami, when Trump arrives to face the new criminal charges.
The risk of political violence rises when invective lands atop misinformation. This week, a letter-writer to The Republican suggested America has become a “banana republic” in which “the current candidate for president directed his justice department to arrest his most probable opponent ….”
That is not an accurate description of why a special counsel investigated Trump, or why a grand jury made up of 23 randomly chosen Florida residents decided to indict him.
But believing so makes people all the more ready to go to war.