“And now we are engaged in a great civil war.”
Abraham Lincoln’s words from the Gettysburg Address echo through the ages. That war — and the death of hundreds of thousands of Americans it brought — tested whether any nation “conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal … can long endure.”
Turns out it could. The Union cause found a hard-won victory. Slavery was ended by constitutional amendment, and the United States pieced back together. And we continue to endure today, although not without scars from that memory.
Before the Confederates shelled Fort Sumter, in Charleston Harbor, on April 11, 1861, the union had begun to fray. Five years earlier, Rep. Preston Brooks, a slave-owning Democrat, famously beat Sen. Charles Sumner, an abolitionist Republican from Massachusetts. Sumner had, days before, excoriated Sen. Andrew Butler (Brooks’ relative) in a floor speech, not only challenging the evil of slavery but also mocking Butler’s stroke-impaired speaking ability. That course of events embodied the “breakdown of reasoned discourse” throughout the nation, a mile-marker on the road to war.
Could the nation have changed course at that watershed moment? Rather than returning to their respective states as heroes, could voters have held their elected officials accountable? Agreeing with their positions, while disagreeing with the manner in which they were expressed? We will never know; “what ifs” are impossible to answer.
Fortunately, today, America takes a different path. Wednesday’s cowardly shooting of Rep. Steven Scalise and others on a Virginia baseball diamond brought immediate denunciation from Sen. Bernie Sanders, the man idolized by the assailant. Much like the response to the paranoid schizophrenic who shot Rep. Gabby Giffords in 2011, everyone roundly condemned the anti-government, atheist conspiracy-theorist.
Yet, with two congressional shootings in six years, something is going on. Much has been made of the coarsening of political conversation; epithets are thrown about, whether calling a large part of the country “deplorables” — misogynists, racists, xenophobes — as Hillary Clinton offered, or grade-school insults from those on the right, with such literary gems as “libtard” levied at lefties.
This gained steam during President Barack Obama’s tenure, such as shouts of “you lie!” from the floor of the House during his State of the Union. The 2016 campaign season saw candidate Donald Trump offer to pay legal bills of supporters who fought protesters. It has accelerated with President Trump’s election. In just the past few weeks, Kathy Griffin now-famously lifted a mock severed head, actors in New York’s Central Park dramatized a presidential assassination, and the creator of “The Wire” advised people to “grab a brick” if Trump sought to fire the special counsel.
It isn’t hard to see where this vocabularic race to the bottom can lead. The individual who opened fire at the GOP baseball practice adopted the most strident statements of those who oppose the Trump Administration, taking them as his own. “It’s Time to Destroy Trump & Co.” “Terminate the Republican Party.” “The Road to Hell Is Paved With Republicans.” Without a doubt, many members of these online groups know the role of hyperbole in a free society; they do not take those headlines seriously.
But some, like the Virginia shooter, do.
So the shooting, while despicable, may be that watershed moment where we can chart a different course. It is an opportunity to take stock of the rhetoric used in politics today. We may just find that things have become a bit too overheated.
No, Democrats (or Republicans. Or Independents. Or Greens.) are not traitors. There is plenty of room for disagreement over the issues of the day without resorting to insults or innuendo. And, in a way, we’re fortunate. Our challenges are not slavery versus freedom; instead, we grapple with things like health insurance, tax policy, and a nearly $20-trillion national debt.
They should be issues which can be solved with reasoned discourse instead of a great civil war.