Words have consequences: Lessons for political leaders on both sides

Words have consequences: Lessons for political leaders on both sides
© Greg Nash

Several days ago Coast Guard Lt. Christopher Hasson, a self-described “white nationalist” in possession of 15 firearms and more than 1,000 rounds of ammunition, was arrested and is now held on multiple drug and weapons possession charges. The U.S. Attorney in Maryland has appropriately labeled Hasson a “domestic terrorist bent on committing acts dangerous to human life that are intended to affect government conduct.” 

The good news is that law enforcement identified and arrested Hasson before he was able to act on his hate.

Hasson’s lengthy manifesto discovered on his government computer rails against “[l]iberalist/globalist ideology [that] is destroying traditional peoples esp[ecially] white,” and proclaims the need to look at various public figures as “appropriate individual targets.” As I read this, I could not help but think that within Hasson’s deranged mind existed the belief that certain of today’s political leaders would either condone or even want him to carry out his attacks.

Hasson is but the latest in a string of sick domestic-based individuals who, in the midst of today’s overheated and fractured political environment, believe that violence is the answer. In October, Cesar Sayoc was arrested and charged with mailing explosive devices to prominent Democrats, journalists and other critics of President TrumpDonald TrumpBiden to hold virtual bilateral meeting with Mexican president More than 300 charged in connection to Capitol riot Trump Jr.: There are 'plenty' of GOP incumbents who should be challenged MORE. One day later, Robert Bowers was arrested for shooting and killing 11 innocent people, as he screamed “all Jews must die,"  at a synagogue in Pittsburgh.


This wave of violent extremism is by no means limited to targets on the left. In June 2017, Rep. Steve ScaliseStephen (Steve) Joseph ScaliseMerrick Garland is right to prioritize domestic terrorism, but he'll need a bigger boat Why Congress must invoke the 14th Amendment now The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by The AIDS Institute - Ahead: One-shot vax, easing restrictions, fiscal help MORE (R-La.) almost lost his life when he and others were shot by James Hodgkinson, a man who belonged to a group the aim of which is to “Terminate the Republican Party.” Hodgkinson intended to do exactly that when he went to the softball practice of a group of Republican congressmen, carrying a loaded rifle and handgun.

In general, violence motivated by racism, anti-Semitism, homophobia, Islamophobia, white nationalism, and even basic political differences is on the rise in this country.

To counter violent extremism, we must continue to depend upon law enforcement to stop these sick individuals before they act, and upon efforts within communities to prevent a path to radicalization before it starts.

Our nation’s leaders have a role, too. Those who occupy public office, those who aspire to public office, and all others who command a microphone in this country, must realize that a basic part of leadership is to set a tone of civility and respect for others. As much as we criticize and ridicule our political leaders today, they do command our attention, they do set the tone and terms of the debate, and their words have consequences.

The notion that responsible dialogue is part of leadership is not new. In writing a speech on this topic delivered at Westminster College several years ago, I discovered that former President Harry Truman said pretty much the same thing, at the same place, in April 1954. In rebuking McCarthyism, Truman said the “descendants of the ancient order of witch-hunters have learned nothing from history.” He went on to say:

“Everyone in public life has a responsibility to conduct himself so as to reinforce and not undermine our internal security and our basic freedoms. Our press and radio have the same responsibility … We must all act soberly and carefully, in keeping with our great traditions.”

Donald Trump could take a lesson from his predecessor, Harry Truman.


President Trump accepts none of the responsibility for today’s political climate, and even claims “I think my language is very nice.” But his rhetoric, both before and after taking office, speaks for itself (literally). Nor can President Trump escape the fact that Cesar Sayoc’s van was plastered with his enthusiastic support for him, or that Lt. Hasson listed one of his intended victims in mocking terms near-identical to that used by President Trump. Like it or not, this president in particular also carries a very large bullhorn. Every word he speaks or tweets publicly is consumed and amplified by the press — whether FOX, MSNBC or all those in between. With that awesome power to command the nation’s attention must come responsibility.

Donald Trump is not alone in this. In January, Congressman Steve KingSteven (Steve) Arnold KingIn Marjorie Taylor Greene, a glimpse of the future House votes to kick Greene off committees over embrace of conspiracy theories LIVE COVERAGE: House debates removing Greene from committees MORE (R-Iowa) dignified white nationalism and white supremacy by wondering aloud “how did that language become offensive?”

Those on the right are not alone in this, either. In a public tweet, Congresswoman Ilhan OmarIlhan OmarMehdi Hasan gets MSNBC Sunday prime-time show Six ways to visualize a divided America Jamaal Bowman's mother dies of COVID-19: 'I share her legacy with all of you' MORE (D-Minn.) recently resorted to an age-old trope, loaded with the baggage of horrifying history, that Jews seek to influence society through money (she quickly and unequivocally apologized). Congresswoman Rashida TlaibRashida Harbi TlaibSix ways to visualize a divided America Jamaal Bowman's mother dies of COVID-19: 'I share her legacy with all of you' Democrats urge Biden FDA to drop in-person rule for abortion pill MORE (D-Mich.) degraded the dignity of her office just hours after assuming it, when she publicly proclaimed “[w]e’re gonna impeach the motherfucker,” referring to President Trump.

My advice to these two freshmen members of Congress is this: As women of color in Congress, you benefit from the dignified examples set by two of your predecessors, Shirley Chisolm (D-N.Y.) and Barbara Jordan (D-Texas). As the first two Muslim women in Congress, you also are trailblazers in your own right.  With that right comes responsibility. Carry yourselves with dignity and humility, as those who follow your trail will look to you as a role model; and, for better or worse, all others will form their expectations of your followers based on you.

As a new election season approaches, voters should add responsible, respectful and civil discourse to the list of job qualifications for political office.

Leaders do lead, and Americans do follow the examples and standards their leaders set. A downward spiral in the rhetoric of our leaders lowers the bar for all the rest of us, makes the previously intolerable tolerable and, for the dangerously deranged few who lurk in our society, makes violence inevitable.

Jeh Johnson served as U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security from 2013 to 2017 and as general counsel of the Department of Defense from 2009 to 2012.