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GOP silence deafening as post-Jan. 6 threats of violence escalate

Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) arrives to his weekly on-camera press conference with reporters on Thursday, October 28, 2021.
Greg Nash

Washington, D.C., Federal District Judge Royce Lamberth did the nation a service on Wednesday. He sentenced insurrectionist Scott Fairlamb to 3 ½ years in prison. Fairlamb was videotaped assaulting a Capitol Police officer on Jan. 6. It was the longest sentence yet imposed on a mob rioter.

But it might not be long enough to send the message that turning to violence as a political tool will not be tolerated in the United States. For partisans animated by a belief in the righteousness of their cause or in their devotion to a single leader, that message needs to be loud, clear and frequently repeated.

The need for severe punishment for violent extremists is more important than ever because, on the same day as Fairlamb’s sentencing, the Department of Homeland Security issued a national terrorism warning about domestic terrorists. It warned that “racially or ethnically motivated violent extremists” and anti-government extremists are “continuing to pose a significant threat to our homeland.” 

Those kinds of threats are now so prevalent that we are in danger of normalizing them and, in so doing, fundamentally altering the landscape of democratic politics. Americans used to pride themselves on the fact that in this country political conflicts were, with rare exceptions, resolved without resort to violence or threats of violence.

No more.

Today, thanks to former President Trump, his acolytes in Congress and his most fanatic followers, threats of violence have entered the everyday world of our politics. Indeed, 4 in 10 Republicans say that political violence may be necessary to “protect America” and preserve their way of life.

Now school board members who insist on schools safe from COVID-19 are bombarded with ominous warnings that they or their family members will be killed. We hear near-daily reports of local election officials and their families on the receiving end of crude, unprintable messages promising physical retribution against them.

On Tuesday, a member of Congress joined this parade of shame. Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.) posted an animated video of himself killing his House colleague Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and then defended it as “symbolic” of his battle against pro-immigration forces. Of course he quickly deleted it, reflecting either a barely active consciousness of guilt or fear of being sanctioned.

House Democrats did indeed react swiftly with a move to investigate and censure Gosar, and the White House condemned his disgraceful action that invited violence against an elected official.

The problem is that practically an entire party is missing in action in resisting the nation’s descent into violence.

Despite their convenient and racially coded invocation of law-and-order rhetoric, leaders of the Republican Party too often turn a blind eye to the dark clouds of violent incivility that are all around them. Rarely do they say or do anything to condemn those who threaten to use force to settle political disputes or who incite others to do so.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (Calif.) and other Republican leaders have another goal that reveals their own priority of attaining party power even if it means sacrificing domestic security: They have moved to punish the 13 Republicans who voted for the bipartisan infrastructure plan by stripping them of their committee assignments. Meanwhile, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.), who voted for the bill along with 18 other Republican colleagues, called it a “godsend for Kentucky.”

McCarthy’s move against the 13 was meant not only to deter similar votes in the future but also to silence their voices.

And many in that group of 13 have themselves joined the growing number of public officials who every day live under a threat of violence.

Here’s the point: The red lights of coming violence are flashing, but no sirens are screaming on the Republican side. Without them, we will be looking back before long at the Department of Homeland Security’s bulletin and wondering why elected Republicans were not paying attention.

Silence in the face of violence only encourages it. No one is safe in the crossfire. The latest terrorist threats are directed at Congress.

It is long past time for Republican leaders to prove that their office is not more important than their Americanism. And, if Jan. 6 did not awaken their conscience, it is hard to see what will.

The sociologist DaShanne Stokes got it right when he recently tweeted, “Violence isn’t a Democrat or Republican problem. It’s an American problem, requiring an American solution.” 

But until Republicans join in the search for a solution, it is more important than ever that the Justice Department unleash its full force to investigate, prosecute and secure severe punishment for those who make threats of violence and intimidation a tactic for winning office, arguments and policy disputes.

Austin Sarat is the William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Jurisprudence and Political Science at Amherst College. He is author of numerous books on America’s death penalty, including “Gruesome Spectacles: Botched Executions and America’s Death Penalty.” Follow him on Twitter @ljstprof.

Dennis Aftergut is a former federal prosecutor.

Tags Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Capitol riot charges Domestic terrorism in the United States Donald Trump Far-right politics in the United States Jan. 6 Capitol attack January 6 attack on the Capitol Kevin McCarthy Mitch McConnell Paul Gosar political violence Republican Party Right-wing populism in the United States Violence

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