Opinion of the Staff: Violence in U.S. Politics

On January 6, vicious attacks on The Capitol threatened to undermine long-lasting democracy in the United States. Consequently, a trend of violence since now former-President Donald Trump’s inauguration in 2017 has received extreme scrutiny by the media and the American people. Over the last four years, large records of violence have been highlighted with events such as the Charlottesville riots in 2017, suppression of BLM protests with police brutality, and most recently, the attack on Capitol Hill. The  escalation of violence during the past several years seems to have coincided with the rise of the populist politics of our former president. Time and again when violence has occurred — from his own political rallies through the Capitol incident, he not only refused to condemn the violence, but he has seemed to promote it, or, at the very least excuse it by referring to the perpetrators as “some very fine people.”  While violence is often deplored and denounced by many, in four years it has become, to some, an acceptable outlet for their rising frustration. But tantrums are unacceptable in toddlers, and they are not acceptable in adults.

One might argue that it’s unfair to lay the blame at the feet of recent political figures when American history is peppered with examples of violent protest. On March 5, 1770, The Boston Massacre occurred when American colonists struck British soldiers with clubs and sticks, causing the besieged soldiers to shoot into the crowd. Though the cause — independence — was worthy, the massacre was bloody and violent. In 1859, John Brown raided Harper’s Ferry, kidnapping a man, raiding an armory, seizing weapons violence erupted leaving sixteen dead. Though the cause — abolition — was worthy, the execution of the raid was bloody and violent. So, does the end  justify the means when the end is accomplished through violence. Not if we wish to remain a civilized society. Violence cannot be our first response.

Political violence becoming more and more frequent illustrates how emotional voters have become. Although a diversity in political opinions is completely fine and expected, political violence is objectively wrong, and if continued, will stain the integrity of our democracy. 

But as shocking as the events of January 6 were, they should not have come as a surprise. In a study done by Politico last year,  it was found that about 1 in 5 Americans with a strong political affiliation says they are willing to endorse violence if the other party wins the presidency. 

The recent violence stemmed from just that idea. Many disagreed about the validity of the outcome of the presidential election, in spite of the fact that federal courts, state attorneys general, governors and other election officials have all found that there were no significant voting irregularities or instances of fraud.  Hyped up by dangerous rhetoric and unsupported allegations, frustrated citizens, were urged to come to Washington DC on January 6 and were incited to “trial by combat” by Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani, and told to “fight like hell” by the president. In addition to the riot that ensued, citizens discussed the possibility of targeting and assassinating legislators. Talk and actions like these go beyond “protest” and no one, whichever political side you support, should agree that this is acceptable.

It is difficult to invoke change that opposes the nature of our country. Violence is what people know and can universally do – not everybody has the eloquence and decorum to protest in a professional setting.

Although the divide between both political parties are starting to seem too great to restore unity, there is still hope that through great change, the separation may still be repairable. After all, we were once a country at war with ourselves, yet even from that we recovered. 

We must diagnose the problem that leads to a belief that the only course of action is through violent means.  Instead of looking at differences in our friends and neighbors, we must look at what we share in common. As Thomas Jefferson once said, “I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend.”

In the lead up to violence on January 6, white supremacy appears to be a dominant driver and common thread among participants. We must recognize that anytime one party believes they hold “supremacy” over another, it is a buzzword for entitlement, prejudice, and denigration. One can not be supreme unless you make someone else demeaned. If someone need to build themself  up by putting someone else down, they are far from “supreme.” And if to prove their superiority they must use a gun, a knife, a molotov cocktail or even a fire extinguisher brandished against a police officer, then they are quite inferior, indeed.

Sadly, according to research done by ACLED, the United States is at heightened risk of political violence and instability going into the 46th president’s administration. Mass shootings hit a record high last year and violent hate crimes are on the rise. America faces a multitude of concurrent, overlapping risks – from police abuse and racial injustice, to pandemic-related unrest and beyond – all exacerbated by increasing polarization. 

We are seeing what it is like to live in a country where people on the outside laugh at you and pity you. The United States may have a history of violence, but it still practices democratic values and strives to protect that for the near and distant future. Democracy depends on key values of nonviolent negotiation and compromise. Danielle Allen of the Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University said, “Democracy depends on language. Language is the instrument of free self-government. So, the quality of our language matters immensely.”

So, if we look at language as a balm to heal the violence our nation recently experienced, perhaps we should recall the words of Martin Luther King Jr. who encouraged taking a step toward unity by saying, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”