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What mail bombs say – and don’t say – about political discourse

Why We Wrote This

America has long struggled with political violence, often at times of sharp change. But experts point out there are ways to help people work through change that don’t involve lashing out.

Mark Makela/Reuters
Law enforcement personnel operate a bomb disposal robot outside a post office in Wilmington, Del., Oct. 25. Pipe bombs have been sent to at least 10 Democratic leaders or Trump critics.

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The bombs mailed to prominent Democrats, including former President Barack Obama, offer one of a growing number of examples of how virulent rants can go from viral to real. Given that social media-driven discourse from all sides is painting different-thinking Americans as moral degenerates, “none of this is particularly surprising – demonization is old-school,” says Victor Asal, who studies political violence at the University at Albany. But “a lot of people don’t realize how dangerous [demonization] is....” The national conversation has been getting coarser and cruder for years, with President Trump coming in for particular criticism. Indeed, all the people targeted are seen as opponents of the president. The reaction to the bombs is illustrative: After a pause to condemn the attacks, various factions began blaming favorite targets – from the president to the media – for reckless rhetoric. “Dehumanizing the person you are attacking is an essential step in an act of political violence,” says Julian Zelizer, coauthor of the book “Fault Lines.” “It’s true that you can’t control your most passionate fans, but that’s not justification for [delegitimizing opponents]. It’s the opposite. You have to do everything possible not to incite something like this.”

Hours after a package containing a pipe bomb was mailed to a “John Brenan” c/o CNN in New York on Wednesday, former CIA Director John Brennan linked the attack to America’s political fever pitch.

That the beating of “tom-toms of anger, animosity, and war” should “embolden people to take matters into their own hands” doesn’t require an intellectual stretch, Mr. Brennan, who served under six presidents, told an audience at the University of Texas in Austin Wednesday night. He added, “I hope this is a turning point.”

Brennan was among those who received a series of bombs mailed to Democratic leaders and Trump critics, including former President Barack Obama; former Vice President Joe Biden; former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton; former Attorney General Eric Holder; George Soros, a liberal financier and frequent target of conspiracy theories; actor Robert De Niro; and California Rep. Maxine Waters.

On Wednesday, President Trump condemned the attacks. “Any acts or threats of political violence are an attack on our democracy itself. No nation can succeed that tolerates violence or the threat of violence as a method of political intimidation, corrosion, or control,” he said.

Of the total of 10 suspicious packages that have been found, none have detonated and no one has been hurt. Law enforcement is searching for the suspect, whose motives remain unknown.

But the incidents, which have been widely condemned, offer one of a growing number of examples of how virulent rhetoric can go from viral to real.

Given that social media driven discourse from all sides is painting different-thinking Americans as moral degenerates, “none of this is particularly surprising – demonization is old-school,” says Victor Asal, who studies political violence at the University at Albany. But “a lot of people don’t realize how dangerous [demonization] is; some people don’t care; and some people want it to be dangerous.”

The national conversation has been getting coarser and cruder for years, with Mr. Trump coming in for particular criticism. Indeed, all the people targeted are seen as opponents of the president.

The reaction to the bombs themselves is illustrative: After a brief pause to condemn the attacks, various factions immediately began blaming favorite targets – from the president to the media – for reckless rhetoric. (There also was a healthy helping of conspiracy theories bruited about, another common feature today, where dialogue has given way to division. Right-wing pundits such as Ann Coulter, Rush Limbaugh, and John Cardillo suggested without evidence that the bombs were a “false flag” operation by Democrats.)

After CNN headquarters in New York was evacuated Wednesday because of the bomb, CNN head Jeff Zucker issued a statement saying that White House officials failed to understand “the seriousness of their continued attacks on the media.”

On Thursday, the president on Twitter blamed “the Mainstream Media that I refer to as Fake News” for “a very big part of the Anger we see today in our society.”

“Words have consequences,” says Jonathan Greenblatt, the national director of the Anti-Defamation League, which tracks hate crimes from New York.

Hate-crime researchers have found distinct patterns linking rhetoric to violence, rooted in crime data, that suggests that patterns of hate-filled violence are shifting. FBI data suggests that catalytic events – such as an election – can shape an emerging “seasonality” of hate.

“Over recent weeks we’ve seen an escalation of [hate-driven violence],” says Brian Levin, the director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino. “We saw the Proud Boys in New York and Patriot Prayer in Portland, including a cache of weapons on a rooftop,” he says, referring to far-right groups who have engaged in violent altercations with counterprotesters this month.

“When we have leaders and a critical mass of people on social media who demonize folks specifically, it’s common sense that for some people they will regard that as where to direct their aggression, particularly when the language is so over the top.”

Historic parallels

Political violence has been part of the American grain since the country was founded by revolution.

The country has seen four presidents assassinated, and one, President Ronald Reagan, nearly killed by a bullet. During the civil rights movement, bombings were frequent, with black churches targeted for destruction by white supremacists. More recently, politicians such as former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, a Democrat, and Rep. Steve Scalise, a Republican, have survived armed attacks, with Representative Scalise’s apparently politically motivated.

Historic equivalents also include Southern leaders during the civil rights movement who opposed desegregation, historians say. They didn’t bomb churches themselves, but their rhetoric fueled terror campaigns. The cold war era also featured Sen. Joseph McCarthy and his search for hidden Communists, resulting in the demonization and black-listing of fellow Americans.

The throes of change don’t have to define a society’s collective future, observers say. And after other inflection points, Americans have found ways to help people think through change without lashing out – first verbally, and then actually.

The extent to which political rhetoric stirs the pot and injects moral certitude into political violence cannot be pinned on any one person. The president, though, has mocked and belittled opponents in ways that previously had been considered unpresidential. And last week, he praised a Montana representative who body-slammed a reporter for asking a question – an act for which the representative pleaded guilty. “Any guy that can do a body slam,” Trump said, “he was my guy.”

“It’s not that this president is very partisan or that he’s a divider, but that he has actually spoken about violence,” says Julian Zelizer, a political historian at Princeton University. “When a president does that, it’s a whole other ball game.”

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, talking to reporters Thursday, pushed back strongly on the idea that the president’s words could be held responsible for an unknown criminal’s violence, saying there’s a difference between “comments made and actions taken.”

Danger of delegitimizing

The intent and effect of hate speech throughout US history, says a political scientist, is to silence opposition in order to gain political power. Take for instance, violence against African-Americans during the Jim Crow era.

Understanding the seasonality of hate may help authorities and Americans in general to address the threat of political violence around them. “It can help us keep our eyes on the loners, these loose electrons that have flown off the atoms,” says Professor Levin.

Yet the bulk of the responsibility for reining in hateful violence likely falls hardest on those hammering on America’s fault lines, including leaders who have the power to generate the “catalytic” moments that drive spikes in hate crime.

“People who commit political violence have a reason for it in their head that makes sense,” says Professor Zelizer, author of the coming book, “Fault Lines: A History of the United States since 1974.” “That could be John Hinckley [who shot Ronald Reagan] trying to impress an actress by trying to assassinate a president. So we have no idea where this came from. It could be a mentally unstable person, it could be a Democrat. But dehumanizing the person you are attacking is an essential step in an act of political violence.
“It’s true that you can’t control your most passionate fans, but that’s not justification for [delegitimizing opponents]. It’s the opposite. You have to do everything possible not to incite something like this.”

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