Is it too late for peace to prevail in American politics?
It seems like the United States is spiraling toward an awful moment. A moment we won't be able to walk back, when the potential for serious political violence finally catalyzes — a day when pipe bombs announce themselves not as mail, but as actual, deadly explosions targeting prominent Americans in politics and the media.
But it's not too late.
Certainly, those of us who follow politics closely can become consumed by our disagreements and how we express them. Today's issue is the most important thing in the world, until tomorrow's issue comes along and becomes the most important thing in the world. Sometimes it is the most important thing in the world. Usually, though, the volume of our arguments goes straight to 10 simply because that's what we've become used to, the amplification provided by a never-ending news cycle, social media, and the dopamine hit that comes from our "someone is wrong on the internet!" crusades for justice.
Given this hostile and emotionally charged environment, it's not a huge surprise when leaders, elected and otherwise, start receiving pipe bombs in the mail, as was the case this week when suspicious packages containing explosives were sent to former President Barack Obama, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and other prominent Democrats.
As of this writing, we don't know who sent the bombs, nor why they did so. Maybe it's some crazed criminal who wants attention, like John Hinckley Jr. But for the moment, this sure looks like a political act: The threat those pipe bombs represents comes at what feels like a cultural tipping point, when passions are high and the potential for political violence is as conspicuous as the bad old days of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Blood has already been spilled in this political environment: Heather Heyer was killed last year while protesting a white supremacist rally, and GOP Rep. Steve Scalise (La.) was grievously injured when a gunman opened fire on the Republican congressional baseball team.
If the awful, irreversible moment finally arrives — and as my colleague Ryan Cooper notes, the threat appears to be coming mostly from the right — we won't be able to say we didn't see it coming.
How can we stop this spiral?
First, we can cast out the charlatans. If you don't want violence in American politics, you simply cannot give your support to a president who so openly celebrates assaults on a reporter, shrugs at the murder of another, and equivocates about responsibility when a white supremacist kills an anti-racism activist. Yes, Trump called the pipe-bomb attacks "despicable," but he has a long history of winking at violence. Such leaders don't deserve your vote. Neither does a political party that makes excuses for them.
Second, we can stop making excuses when our own side crosses boundaries. Hate the Proud Boys? You should probably criticize Antifa. Think the Democrats are inspiring mobs? You might want to rethink those old Tea Party protests. Hold yourself, and your side, to the same standards you hold your opponents.
Third, we can all stop wallowing in victimization. Do a little reading across the political spectrum, and it becomes clear that one common belief unites rank-and-file partisans on both the left and right: Our side is weak. The other side is strong. They'll do anything to win, including disregard the norms and rules that we, weakly, play by. So the only way for us to compete is by disregarding the rules, too. This universal presumption of bad faith creates a vicious circle. Trump, in particular, benefits from this process — not because his supporters always think he's a good guy, but because many think his nastiness protects them.
Maybe we'll get lucky. Perhaps this mad bomber is merely a mad bomber, and not some political zealot who tried to eliminate all of the right's bogeymen in the span of just a few days. But if it does end up being the case that these attacks boiled up from our increasingly polarized political culture, it's up to each of us to reconsider how we contribute to and participate in that culture, no matter how much we suspect the "other side" is at fault. We must do better than hope against violence or criticize its practitioners — we must actively work for peace, remembering always that "true peace … is the presence of justice."
Political violence, once unleashed, is nearly impossible to contain. It creates more suffering than solutions. And once the cycle starts, we don't know where it ends. We're awfully close to crossing that cultural tipping point, but we can still make better choices. It's not too late.