Last weekend, I read an editorial in the New York Times by Bill McKibben about the death threats he has received. Most recently, an online forum in a moderated group that supports gas pipelines (which McKibben opposes) included a casual discussion about killing McKibben. Apparently one person said it would be good if someone killed him. Others agreed. Someone posted McKibben’s home address.
McKibben commented that contributors to this forum could not use profanity in their posts; if they did, the posts would be deleted. He noted the irony of allowing death threats, but not naughty language. McKibben acknowledged that civility seems to be too much to expect from internet conversations. But he said he hoped we could all agree that death threats should be considered bad form.
A few days later, the newspapers reported that several prominent Democrats and organizations perceived as left-leaning received pipe bombs in the mail. Thankfully no one was hurt.
Then this weekend, a gunman went into a synagogue during worship and opened fire. The gunman was quoted as saying, “I just want to kill Jews.” Tragically, he did.
I presume that the person who mailed the pipe bombs and the anti-Semitic gunman are mentally ill. They do not represent mainstream political opinion. But I also presume that rhetorical violence coming from mainstream political leaders and commentators increases the likelihood that mentally ill people will act in violent ways. We tolerate that language. And that means many of us are complicit in these insane acts, even if we would never commit them ourselves and if we condemn them when they happen. For that, we should repent.
I am not so naïve as to think that people who engage in irresponsible language will be shocked into better behavior by horrible acts of violence. But I hope that the tide will gradually turn against them, that irresponsible language will increasingly be condemned by ordinary people; that, at the very least, irresponsible language will become less and less effective at doing whatever it is that the people who say it want to do. In my lifetime, racist language went from being socially acceptable to not being socially acceptable. Surely the same can happen with irresponsible, inflammatory, violent rhetoric. At least I hope and pray that it can.