The murder yesterday at the Holocaust Museum, following so soon after the murder of Kansas abortion provider George Tiller, is rightly making people wonder what’s going on in our country. Are two politically motivated homicides in so short a period a coincidence? And if not, how do we avoid falling into paranoid states of mind that lead us to unfairly associate non-violence Americans with violent acts?
As it happens, James Vega did a prescient and useful piece on this subject for TDS back in April, entitled: “What is ‘right-wing extremism,'” motivated by the now-famous Department of Homeland Security study that had conservatives howling in outrage. Here was his most fundamental point about the distinction between “extremist” and “non-extremist” politics.
Underlying all extremist political ideologies is one central idea – the vision of “politics as warfare”. While this phrase is widely used as a metaphor, political extremists mean it in an entirely concrete and operational way. It is a view that is codified in the belief that political opponents are literally “enemies” who must be crushed rather than fellow Americans with different opinions with whom negotiated political compromises must be sought.
In terms of right-wing extremism, says Vega, there are separate but mutually reinforcing military and religious world-views that can lead to this treatment of opponents as “enemies” who merit annihilation, the first adopting the rules of engagement of warfare, and the second involving a literal demonization of opponents. And this process of legitimizing violence can begin with the sort of violent rhetoric heard so often on the airwaves and across the internet.
It’s important, as Vega reminds us, to separate the sheep from the goats and not blame conservatives for right-wing violence. But no matter how respectable the voices involved, when people adopt the language of warfare, they need to be called out:
Many conservative groups object to being lumped together with violent extremists, and argue that even their most intense and radical opposition to Obama does not make them violent political extremists.
In fact, they are entirely correct. What distinguishes “political extremism” from other concepts like “the radical right” or “hard-right conservatism” is the following:
1. The two ideological pillars on which genuine political extremism rests are the notions of “politics as warfare” and of political opponents as “enemies”. Groups which reject these notions are not political extremists,
2. Political extremism becomes dangerous and violent whenever and wherever these two notions are taken literally.
What should Democrats do? Basically, there needs to be clear and resolute pushback against these two notions. When politicians or others use the notions of “politics as war,” and “liberals and Democrats as enemies”, Democrats have to clearly and forcefully object. They have to stop the discussion dead in its tracks and say.
“No, you are profoundly wrong. Politics is not warfare and Americans with whom we disagree are not “enemies”. We totally reject these ideas. In fact, that’s one of the most fundamental differences between you and us and we think it is a major reason why most Americans now support Obama. You actually believe that you are literally at war with every single American who does not agree with you. We don’t think that way, and most Americans don’t either.
Let’s hope this way of stopping the incitement of violence in politics catches on before tragedies and outrages become all too common-place.