Something is seriously rotten in the United States.
Everything seems to indicate that the gunman in the Virginia shooting yesterday had decided to lash out at Republican politicians. The act was firmly condemned, and rightly so. On the other hand, this sort of act of violence aimed at American elected officials didn’t seem too surprising.
That no one is shocked is appalling ... but understandable. For at least two reasons.
First, because of the number of firearms in circulation and how easy it is to get one. It’s an obvious conclusion that’s drawn after each shooting. Often, then. Too often.
Next, because of the increase in, and intensification of, hate speech directed at politicians, a trend that has reached new heights thanks to the internet. Notably on social networks, which give anyone and everyone the opportunity to publicly – and acidly – voice their thoughts.
At the tail end of the most recent run for the White House, U.S. Financial Times correspondent Edward Luce voiced his distress at this phenomenon. “[T]his is the year when democracy’s sense of restraint seemed to vanish. The glue of mutual respect that is so vital to any free society came unstuck,“ he wrote last November.
This seasoned observer of the U.S. noted that the era when Americans used to try and sway those who didn’t think like them is gone. Now “they shove their views in your face” or insult you. “The more retweets the better.”
The constant presence of lies on the internet makes the cocktail even more volatile. Made-up lies about politicians you don’t like can now go viral. And people will believe them.
Remember how Hillary Clinton and her campaign head, John Podesta, were accused of running a kiddie porn ring last year? The people that made up this lie even maintained that a Washington restaurant was at the heart of this child trafficking ring. Result: In December, a man stormed into this establishment with an assault rifle. He was arrested, thank God, after firing without injuring anyone.
Demonizing the government and its representatives isn’t a practice that started yesterday.
The most serious terrorist attack on the U.S. before the attack on 9/11 was also the result of this demonization. In Oklahoma City, in April 1995, two terrorists blew up a federal building, killing 168 people. They were convinced that they were defending the “American Constitution.”
Bill Clinton, who was president at the time, was devastated by this event. In the aftermath, he spoke eloquently, several times, about what lessons could be taken away from this tragedy.
“We are more connected than ever before, more able to spread our ideas and beliefs, our anger and fears,” he wrote in The New York Times 15 years later. “As we exercise the right to advocate our views, and as we animate our supporters, we must all assume responsibility for our words and actions before they enter a vast echo chamber and reach those both serious and delirious, connected and unhinged.”
Yesterday, Donald Trump and several politicians in the U.S. Congress echoed these wise words. They put out a vibrant call for unity. All the better if it’s heard.
But allow us to be skeptical. Since hate seems to be becoming a political tool like any other. And the current president is one of the politicians who insult their rivals most fervently and with the least amount of decency. Some of his opponents don’t go in for subtlety either.
Add to the mix the fact that society is highly polarized and it’s hard to see, alas, who could stop (and how) this disturbing situation from decaying any further.