When America's verbal violence turns real

On the dispiriting lessons of this week's pipe bomb scare

A suspicious package.
(Image credit: Illustrated | FBI/Handout via REUTERS, jessicahyde/iStock, REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton)

If the pipe bombs sent through the mail this week to two former presidents, a former presidential nominee, a former vice president, a former attorney general, a former CIA director, a sitting member of Congress, an outspoken actor, and a wealthy philanthropist and activist — all of them Democrats and/or staunch critics of President Trump — had exploded, killing or maiming their targets, this would have been hands-down the single most audacious act of domestic political terrorism, and potentially the single most ambitious act of political assassination, in our nation's history.

Thankfully, none of the bombs exploded. No one was maimed or killed. And so the entire incident has become just the latest in an endless series of polarizing but merely performative political gestures that will most likely disappear down the memory hole a week or a month from now, succeeded by the next outrage and provocation, and then the next, and then the one after that.

Nearly two years into the reality-show era in American politics — a time when the nation's public life has been transformed into a multimedia spectacle in which trolling increasingly takes the place of citizenship — the country is led by a virtual tyrant and tottering on the verge of a virtual civil war. Together we are testing whether the nation can avoid a collective nervous breakdown, as sweeping gestures of outrage and denunciation, calls to incivility and violence, talk of imminent violence, absurd conspiracies, and outright nonsense fly in every direction every single day, encouraged and participated in by everyone from the president on down to unknown freelance (and possibly foreign-funded) provocateurs on social media platforms.

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That mailed bombs have now been added to the churning cauldron of anger and vituperation makes perfect sense — just the latest plot twist in the unfolding phantasmagoric national drama streaming on the supercomputers each of us carries around with us in our pockets and purses.

This isn't to minimize or mock the events of this week. We don’t yet know the intent of those who built and mailed the bombs. Were they supposed to inflict serious harm or death but merely constructed ineptly? Or were they deliberate hoaxes meant to troll instead of injure? The fact that at least some of the bombs were accompanied by a parody ISIS flag that included a message ("Get 'er Done") associated with redneck comedian Larry the Cable Guy, along with silhouettes of naked women and sex toys, would seem to point toward the latter.

But either way, none of the bombs detonated. That makes this week's events very different than the multiple acts of political violence that, within living memory, threatened to destabilize the country. In the two decades between 1961 and 1981, three presidents (John F. Kennedy, Gerald Ford, and Ronald Reagan), two candidates for president (Robert Kennedy and George Wallace), and two of the nation's leading civil rights activists (Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X) were targeted by assassins — with four of them ending up dead.

During the apex of this violence — from the late 1960s through the mid-1970s — America's cities were frequently consumed by looting and fires started by rioting protesters. And left-wing terrorists detonated literally thousands of explosives. In an 18-month period of 1971 and 1972, there were an astonishing 2,500 bombings on American soil. The deadliest single attack took place at a Wall Street restaurant in January 1975 and killed four. All told, 25 people were struck down by the extremist underground during the 1970s.

Nothing remotely like that is happening today from either ideological direction — at least not yet. (The shooting of Rep. Steve Scalise [R-LA] and three others by a deranged left-wing activist at a congressional baseball practice in June 2017 is the only event that comes close.)

What we have instead is mostly verbal violence — hyperbolic expressions of outrage and disgust at ideological opponents, flat-footed and often flamboyantly ignorant historical analogies, and shameless assertions of half-truths and sometimes outright lies from leading politicians and media personalities. And of course, encouraging it all, is the president himself, who denounces and demonizes the press and his political enemies with giddy abandon, often skirting the edges of outright incitement to violence.

Looking back at the real-world tumult of 50 years ago, the most striking thing may be the lack of panic it provoked. Yes, Richard Nixon ran for and won the White House with a campaign promising "law and order," and with the election of Ronald Reagan the political spectrum itself shifted a few clicks rightward for more than a generation. But the surge in violence at the time was real and called out for a measured, mainstream response, which is mostly what these Republicans offered.

What we did not see was widespread hysteria, with television news anchors and large newspapers and magazines stoking the frenzy on a daily basis. And of course there was no internet and no Twitter to serve as a digital megaphone for every political hothead, nihilistic troublemaker, or rank opportunist in the world.

Five decades ago, most Americans managed to keep their heads. But today? This week's non-bombings probably provoked more incendiary commentary than several years of real-world political violence did during the '60s and '70s.

How far can the reality show be pushed before the virtual violence turns real? Stay tuned and we may yet get our answer.

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