On Wednesday morning, a lone gunman, identified as 66-year-old James Hodgkinson, attacked a Republican practice session for the upcoming congressional baseball game. Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.) was shot and badly wounded, as well as a staffer, a lobbyist, and two police officers, all of whom are reportedly recovering.
Hodgkinson was also shot, and reportedly died after being taken to a local hospital, so unfortunately he will not be able to speak directly to his motives. But it seems fairly clear that a political grievance was at work. His Facebook page contains many statements critical of conservatives, and in support of left-leaning figures, particularly Bernie Sanders, whom Hodgkinson reportedly campaigned for in Iowa. Rep. Jeff Duncan (R-S.C.) reported that Hodgkinson asked whether the practicing team was made up of Republicans or Democrats before opening fire.
Many conservatives — and even a few anti-Sanders liberals — were palpably eager to pin the shootings on Sanders and the left through guilt by association. This is risible. But it is also an opportunity to take stock of the roots of violence in our diseased politics.
For starters, if responsibility for acts of political violence are to be assigned to the political faction to which the perpetrators adhere, that (unjust) standard also must apply to the numerous acts of right-wing terrorism over the years. Terrorists like Robert Dear, Timothy McVeigh, Jason McVean, and many others expressed some conservative political views — so by this twisted logic, conservatives are responsible for their actions.
That would, of course, be quite unfair.
Furthermore, Bernie Sanders has never breathed so much as a whisper of incitement to violence against anyone, much less members of Congress. The closest he has come is referencing estimates of how many people will die due to uninsurance should the TrumpCare bill pass. But he has never suggested that the appropriate remedy for that atrocious bill is violence of any kind. His political agenda is wholly small-d democratic: jacking up voter turnout so as to elect a new crop of populist figures who will then pass social-democratic policy. As Sanders himself said on Wednesday, "Violence of any kind is unacceptable in our society, and I condemn this action in the strongest possible terms."
Anyone who takes the politics and message of Bernie Sanders seriously could not possibly believe that trying to gun down Republican members of Congress is a sensible political act. Indeed, the only actually common view in American politics that might justify doing so is the conservative trope that the "purpose of the Second Amendment is to give the people the means to overthrow the government in the event it becomes tyrannical," though conservatives of course do not actually act on it in any serious way, because they would obviously be no match for the military.
So what was the motivation here? Reading through Hodgkinson's since-deleted Facebook posts, one gets a strong whiff of the Angry Online Guy — someone who spends too much time on social media, is obsessed with politics, capitalizes all his posts, and had a history of anger and violence, including against a woman and own daughter. This last factor may have been decisive; research on both these sort of lone wolf spree attacks and ordinary murders indicate that a serious anger problem is often the key factor behind them. Disturbed people with rage problems lash out. There is only one person to blame for the actions of James Hodgkinson, and his name is not Bernie Sanders.
Then, of course, we must factor in the easy availability of firearms.
As Jeet Heer argues, if we are truly concerned with spree killings, we could expand medical treatment, and restrict gun access to people with serious personality problems. (Of course, we won't.) But using the latest awful shooting to attack one of America's most decent politicians will accomplish precisely nothing.