Roughly one week ahead of America’s 2018 general Election Day, the nation seems as stressed as ever, politically polarized and exceptionally angry. Among politicians, calls for civility double as rhetoric, and those who truly express a desire for people to behave calmly are likely to receive contumely instead.
Whatever catalysts have triggered unhinged maniacs to engage in domestic terrorism this past week — see Cesar Sayoc, Gregory Bush and Robert Bowers — have left hyper-partisan Americans trying to assign blame and mold narratives to fit their political bents.
Sayoc, who mailed replica pipe bombs to prominent liberals, drove a van covered in praise for President Donald Trump. Bowers, who murdered 11 people at a Pittsburgh synagogue, criticized Trump on social media. Bush, who killed two African Americans he did not know in Kentucky, apparently tried to enter a black church shortly before committing his atrocity.
With such hateful events occurring in short order before a charged election, perhaps it is unavoidable that Americans — and our political leaders — would attempt to frame such tragedies as evidence of their partisan superiority. But what will their parties do to address the dangers posed by hateful criminals?
Some Democrats speak strongly about a desire to limit access to deadly firearms, but the policy options therein are complicated and the political realities seem vexing. Republicans largely argue that nothing can be done to limit lunatics’ access to high-powered rifles and enormous-capacity magazines.
Both parties give mealy-mouthed lip service to the issue of mental health care before turning their attentions back to their elections, hoping furtively that all five dice will align and — Yahtzee! — America’s hate and violence problems will be cured.
It was in a church, for God’s sake
But let’s take a step back from discussing violent events and simply look at civility as a state of behavior — a value worth embodying for our children.
On Wednesday, NonDoc and non-partisan partner Generation Citizen hosted a political debate between the two candidates seeking to represent Oklahoma’s 5th Congressional District. Democrat challenger Kendra Horn had more supporters in attendance than Republican incumbent U.S. Rep. Steve Russell.
But while both candidates answered questions about foreign and domestic affairs, Horn supporters repeatedly interrupted them, shouting at Russell and cutting Horn’s own statements short with cheers and applause even when asked to refrain so that those watching online could hear. Some Russell supporters shouted back, and — for a few moments — closed captioning of the event would have read, “Incoherent yelling.”
Near the debate’s conclusion, one man stood and demanded Russell answer a confusing question, saying he would accept a request to leave if Russell responded. The congressman did, but the man sat back down, as if his word meant nothing at all. Ultimately, security escorted him from the building.
Such disruptions and outbursts were, among other adjectives, rude and disrespectful — not only to the candidates on stage but to other audience members, to voters watching from home and to the journalists questioning Russell and Horn.
In the well-lit room, we were able to identify many of the repeat offenders and found it shocking that several were people we consider “friends of the site.” One man who was asked to stop disrupting those around him had actually messaged us hours earlier hoping to have a certain question asked at the debate. Another was the mother of someone who writes for us.
While we are sure to receive raspberries by critiquing those who eschewed civility at last week’s debate, the underlying principles are too important to ignore: If Americans can no longer sit in a room, listen to policy discussions and treat people with respect, the deliberate forces that seek to divide us have won.
With U.S. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi confronted and cussed at in California and U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell harassed in a crowded Kentucky restaurant, there is enough blame to go around. President Donald Trump has plenty of feces on his fingers, but no one should argue with a straight face that two wrongs make a right.
To the contrary, these events often snowball based on the ignorant belief that yelling at someone is better than talking with them. Unfortunately, the next step for a small fraction of people apparently involves guns, bombs or some other agent of death.
Americans who live and breathe politics must move to value civility before everyone’s anger suffocates us all.