On Wednesday morning, in the suburbs of Washington, DC, a gunman opened fire on a group of Republican Members of Congress.
The Republicans were reportedly holding baseball practice for the annual charity game, and the shooter opened fire while they were on the field. The incident ended after the gunman was shot by Capitol Police, and the shooter later died of his injuries. Multiple people were wounded in the attack, including Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-LA), but fortunately none of the victims had died as of this writing.
Of course, it is still early in the investigation, so the details may change. But as it stands, the shooter has been identified as James Hodgkinson of Illinois.
Attack Was Politically-Motivated
There’s no indication that Hodgkinson is Muslim, so naturally, the US media is not describing the event as terrorism. That said, the motivation for the attack does appear to be political in nature–given both the choice of target and the strong political statements expressed by the alleged shooter.
As Zero Hedge and The Hill have reported, Hodgkinson had an active political presence on social media. His views seem to line up with standard progressive positions, and he was a supporter of Senator Bernie Sanders in the last election cycle. His Facebook posts suggest that he fully bought into the Trump traitor narrative offered by Democrats. Consequently, he had also called for Trump’s impeachment on social media.
At least from what I’ve read, the views he expressed publicly do not appear to have been uniquely radical or violent.
However, further evidence of a political motive can be found in the fact that, according to at least two sources, the shooter asked bystanders whether the people practicing were Republicans or Democrats before opening fire.
Even if this last report didn’t exist, it would be an extraordinary coincidence if the shooter decided to commit a random act of violence, in a city he didn’t live in, at a baseball field that happened to be hosting a Congressional baseball practice for an event that happens once a year. It’s technically possible, but not very likely.
Assigning Collective Blame
So it’s safe to say the attack was political. And for conservatives, a useful narrative almost writes itself: a self-identified leftist accepted the Democratic talking point that Trump and the Republicans are traitors and decided to take matters into his own hands.
It’s understandable how Republicans could gain from this tactic, and it should come as no surprise that some of them are already trying it out. For example, Rep. Rodney Davis (R-IL) blamed the attack in part on the Democrats’ “hateful rhetoric”, describing their post-election conduct as “political rhetorical terrorism”.
This narrative serves as a convenient rebuttal to the numerous reports that emphasize the threat Americans face from right-wing terrorism. In such reports, it’s all but inevitable that President Trump’s behavior will be deemed responsible for extremist violence perpetrated by individuals. Similarly, in Davis’s version, the Democrats’ vitriolic speech against Trump is to blame for a random individual shooting at Republicans during baseball practice.
The arguments are mirror images of each other. And they rely on the same basic fallacy of collectivism.
To be clear, the only person responsible for Capitol Baseball shooting is the shooter himself.
All Democrats are not to blame. Neither are Bernie Sanders supporters nor progressives. The shooter himself may have identified with one or more of these labels, but that doesn’t make other members of those groups guilty by association.
It’s true that Hodgkinson demanded raising taxes on the rich. But from this, it does not follow that everyone who supports tax increases is just steps away from going homicidal.
The same observations hold for attackers with some type of right-wing ideology. For example, the only person responsible for the racially-motivated stabbing on the University of Maryland campus is the attacker himself. Trump supporters and conservatives are not at fault for senseless acts of violence committed by an individual.
This extends to the leaders of these groups as well. We might learn later that the latest Russia segment by Rachel Maddow or John Oliver was the last straw that finally convinced Hodgkinson to take violent measures. But even if that’s the case, Maddow and Oliver still would not be responsible for the shooter’s actions. No doubt hundreds of thousands of other people would have consumed the same segment without deciding to shoot up a baseball field.
Threat to Free Speech
Outright blaming opinion-makers and politicians for inspiring violent acts is incorrect because it ignores the agency of the actual attacker to make independent decisions. It’s also extremely dangerous from a free speech perspective.
The free speech protections in the First Amendment have proven to be remarkably resilient. That said, judging from the illiberal state of many college campuses, many Democrats and progressives are now open to the idea of regulating “hate speech”. Fortunately, most Republicans are unlikely to go along with that. This might be a matter of principle for some, but it’s also likely driven by disinterest in the latest social justice priorities. Either way, the Republicans currently serve as a decent bulwark against legislative efforts to circumvent the First Amendment.
However, if the Republicans adopt the narrative that the Democrats’ hateful rhetoric is causing violence, then the dynamic described above could change. For Republicans, restricting free speech would no longer be just about appeasing illiberal college progressives. Why, it would be a matter of national security instead.
In turn, this creates a dangerous pathway for a bipartisan consensus to emerge around restricting free speech–with Democrats doing it for social justice and Republicans doing it in the name of terrorism and national security. This would not be a positive development.
In the wake of an attack like this, assigning collective guilt is the default reaction for many American politicians and journalists. Most commonly, this blame is placed on Muslims, but it happens in other cases as well.
The problem is that it’s not actually true. Arbitrary groups don’t commit crimes; individuals do. And they are the only ones that should be blamed.