The Week Ahead: Who is responsible for political violence?

What links Kyle Rittenhouse, Stephen Bannon, and Paul Gosar: their attempts to avoid accountability

Behind today’s closing argument in Kyle Rittenhouse’s trial lies much the same question that lurks behind Stephen Bannon’s expected surrender to federal authorities, also today: when is someone accountable for deadly violence?

Rittenhouse argues that he killed two people in “self-defense.” But self-defense could become an ever-expanding justification for political violence within a society of soaring gun ownership, mounting political extremism, increasingly violent political threats, and growing vigilantism.

Bannon argues he shouldn’t have to respond to the House committee investigating the January 6 insurrection because of “executive privilege.”  But executive privilege could justify almost any degree of political violence under a chief executive who excuses the insurrection as a mere “protest” and even describes the rioter’s “hang Mike Pence” chant as “common sense.

This week will also reveal whether the House of Representatives does anything about Representative Paul Gosar’s tweet and Instagram post last week of a photoshopped animated cartoon in which he assassinates Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and attacks President Joe Biden. Gosar defends his post by saying it “symbolizes the battle for the soul of America” when Congress takes up the president’s economic package, which he said includes immigration provisions he opposes.

Gosar represents Arizona’s 4th congressional district. Here I want to spend a few moments discussing a courageous woman who until 2012 represented Arizona’s 8th congressional district, Gabrielle Giffords. I’ll explain the logical connection in a moment.

I got to know Gabby Giffords shortly before she entered politics as a member of the Arizona state House of Representatives in 2001. I frequently visited her over the next decade, often during her election campaigns. I have known few politicians with more energy, intelligence, humor, and devotion to the people of her state and nation.

Gabby became the youngest woman ever elected to the Arizona senate and then, in 2006, the third woman in history to be elected to represent Arizona in the U.S. House of Representatives. Her many accomplishments included expanded access to healthcare, measures to fight climate change, improve education, and provide immigrants a path to citizenship. I remember thinking she would become president one day. (I was proud to preside at her wedding to Mark Kelly, then an astronaut and now an Arizona senator.)

On January 8, 2011, during one of her "Congress on Your Corner" public gatherings outside a Safeway grocery store in Casa Adobes, Arizona, Gabby was shot in the head by a man firing a 9mm pistol with a 33-round magazine. He hit 19 people and killed six, among them federal judge John Roll and 9-year-old Christina-Taylor Green. The shooter, Jared Lee Loughner, was detained by bystanders until he was taken into police custody. Eventually, after facing more than 50 federal criminal charges, Loughner pleaded guilty to 19 of them to avoid a death sentence.  

Gabby was evacuated to the University Medical Center of Tucson in critical condition. Doctors performed emergency surgery to extract skull fragments and a small amount of necrotic tissue from her brain. Her damaged eye socket was surgically repaired. Additional reconstructive surgery followed. By the time I was able to see her the following week, Gabby could say a few words. But even now, a decade later – after the most intense and courageous personal effort at rehabilitation I have ever witnessed – she continues to struggle with language and has lost half her vision in both eyes. Gabby resigned from Congress in 2012.

I have no end of admiration for Gabby’s courage and determination. What happened to her is simply heartbreaking.

Why did Louchner try to assassinate her? No one will ever know for sure. Authorities found in his safe an envelope that bore the handwritten words “Giffords,” “My assassination” and “I planned ahead.” By all accounts, including his own, he was growing increasingly delusional. He had amplified on his social media accounts several extremist right-wing tropes.

Ten months before, in March 2010, former Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin had posted a map of 20 Congressional districts she and John McCain won in 2008 but whose representatives in Congress had voted in favor of the Affordable Care Act. The map marked each targeted district with a set of crosshairs. Palin promoted the map by tweeting "Don't Retreat, Instead – RELOAD." One of those crosshairs targeted Gabby. Although no direct connection was ever established between Palin’s map and Gabby’s shooting, surely Palin’s violent rhetoric contributed to a climate of political violence in America in which a delusional man would mark Gabby for assassination. Gabby herself had expressed concern about Palin's map.

Just as surely, Palin’s inflammatory post was a step toward increasingly violent political rhetoric on the way to Donald Trump and the insurrection of January 6, 2021.

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Why am I telling you this? Because last Friday a group of House Democrats introduced a resolution to censure Representative Paul Gosar for posting his cartoon video depicting him assassinating Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. The motion was introduced by Representative Jackie Speier, co-chair of the Democratic Women’s Caucus, and nine other lawmakers. “For that Member to post such a video on his official Instagram account and use his official congressional resources in the House of Representatives to further violence against elected officials goes beyond the pale,” the group said. “As the events of January 6th have shown, such vicious and vulgar messaging can and does foment actual violence.”

Censure is the second harshest form of punishment in the House short of expulsion, and requires a simple majority in a floor vote to pass. Twenty-three lawmakers have been censured by the House since 1832. It would require Gosar to stand in the center of the House chamber as the resolution condemning his conduct is read aloud. 

House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy has so far been silent on Gosar’s video. The group of House Democrats who introduced the resolution condemned McCarthy’s silence, calling it “tacit approval and just as dangerous.”

My friends, I don’t need to tell you we are living in a time of increasingly virulent politics and violent political threats, perpetrated largely in and by the Republican Party. The New York Times reports that at a conservative rally in western Idaho last month, a young man stepped up to a microphone to ask when he could start killing Democrats. “When do we get to use the guns?” he said as the audience applauded. “How many elections are they going to steal before we kill these people?” The local state representative, a Republican, later called it a “fair” question.

According to the Times, violent threats against lawmakers are on track to double this year. Republicans who break party ranks and defy Trump have come to expect death threats — often fueled by their own colleagues who have denounced them as traitors.

Unless those at the highest levels of government who foment or encourage violence — or remain conspicuously silent as others do — are held accountable, no one in political life will be safe.

A few days ago on CNN, Jennifer Gosar called her brother “a sociopath” with escalating dangerous behavior that no one holds accountable: “It’s definitely getting worse because no one holds him accountable,” she said. “Not Kevin McCarthy, not Senate Leader Mitch McConnell, not Senate Leader Chuck Schumer, not Speaker Nancy Pelosi, not Attorney General Merrick Garland. No one holds him accountable. And this is something that I have to openly wonder, does he have to act on it himself before we have to believe that he is an absolute, he’s a sociopath.”

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