One of these things is still not like the other

>> Monday, October 10, 2016

This sort of rhetoric is hardly without precedent. Nineteenth-century American politics was a rough-and-tumble affair, with speakers frequently employing rhetoric that might shock contemporary audiences. And the rhetoric was often a prelude to violence. Brawls and duels were not uncommon, and lynchings not unheard of.

In more recent decades, impassioned partisans have called for the use of criminal sanctions, or even violence, against their political opponents. In 1993, readers of National Review found an ad offering anti-Clinton bumper stickers: “Impeach him hell—get a rope.” In the wake of the Iraq War, many on the left and the libertarian right suggested that George W. Bush be charged with war crimes. At a Sarah Palin rally in Scranton, Pennsylvania, in October of 2008, a Scranton Times-Tribune reporter heard a man shout, “Kill him!” (The Secret Service investigated the report, interviewing 20 witnesses, but was unable to corroborate it.)

On occasion, such rhetorical attacks have seemed to inspire actual violence. There were 5,000 "Wanted for Treason" flyers distributed in Dallas ahead of John F. Kennedy’s assassination.
The Atlantic, October 10th, 2016.

I get irritable about this, you know.  Oh, you know: the second paragraph, up there, that kind of thing.  The kind of lazy writing that compares violent right-wing rhetoric like "Get A Rope" and "Kill him!" (speaking of lazy writing: kill who, G.W. Bush?) to "many on the left and the libertarian right suggest[ing] that George W. Bush be charged with war crimes" as examples of "Both Sides Do It!" rhetorical excess.

The difference, not to keep flogging a horse that President Obama has made it clear he'd like to stay dead, is that there are legitimate, actual legal questions surrounding (1) whether the interrogation procedures used by Americans against foreign prisoners at Gitmo and other locales constituted torture and/or other violations of treaties we are signatory to and/or have enacted enabling legislation to forbid; (2) if so, who is accountable and how far does accountability extend (i.e. is accountability limited, say, to CIA operatives who tortured a prisoner, or does accountability extend to lawyers who may have advised those operatives, and/or to Executive Branch officials who may have or should have been aware of the torture and either authorized it or failed to act to prevent it); (3) what should the nature of that accountability be, if any; and (4) what are the responsibilities of the sitting Executive or subsequent Executive Branch officials in dealing with the first three points (there is a colorable legal argument that President Obama has violated American and international law by not launching a full criminal investigation and prosecuting wrongdoers if probable cause exists to believe they committed criminal acts)?

That shouldn't be a partisan issue.  It isn't about playing politics with the law, it's merely about following it.  Indeed, perversely enough, the President has arguably been playing politics with the law by not exercising his legal and moral obligations in this area in an attempt to avoid a partisan backlash in which he's wrongly accused by Republicans of indulging in some kind of witch hunt.

In a bizarre way, this is actually what's troubling about both Trump's comments and the uncomfortable political reality coiled and slumbering beneath it: Trump's threat to prosecute Hillary Clinton if he's elected is a repudiation of a tradition that dates back at least as far as 1974 of gamely pardoning or ignoring alleged criminal activity when the political fallout of a prosecution might trigger a Constitutional crisis.  And the uncomfortable reality coiled and slumbering, of course, is that the political pragmatists are probably right that the state of the Republic is indeed so precarious and unstable that prosecuting Nixon, or Reagan, or George H.W. Bush, or Bill Clinton, or George W. Bush would trigger a Constitutional crisis and jeopardize the frail and unhealthy--but barely stable--status quo.

I ought to be clear that I haven't seen any particular evidence at this point that Hillary Clinton ought to be prosecuted, and that there is an undeniably un-American tint to a Presidential candidate treating the outcome of a hypothetical criminal investigation as a foregone conclusion.  (I should underscore that, too, by adding that I don't presume that a criminal investigation of torture allegations during the Bush Administration would lead to an indictment of G.W. Bush; indeed, I don't presume that a criminal investigation is necessarily our only response to torture allegations under treaty, though the Executive's hands may be tied by Federal statute--I think it's possible, or at least arguable, that a Truth and Reconciliation Committee on Torture could satisfy our treaty obligations.)  But supposing for argument's sake that the FBI conclusion that there's no criminal liability on Clinton's part for the e-mail scandal is incorrect and that criminal laws were violated: it seems self-evident that prosecuting her wouldn't necessarily be a partisan act, though it might have horribly partisan consequences.

I feel like I should give this piece more time and more links, but, frankly, I find the subject a bit fatiguing and frankly I burned out my ire at the President's decision to sit on his hands re: American torture of Iraqi, Afghan, and suspected terrorist prisoners several years ago.  It's not that the issue became any less pressing or horrifying, only that it became completely obvious that it wasn't going to change and any further spouting off on my part was only going to make me sick to my stomach again.

Oh, and there is one more thing that irritates me: that third paragraph I excerpted up there.  Lately it's been a bit fashionable to remind everyone of the "Wanted For Treason" posters that circulated in Dallas in November, 1963, as a parallel to some of the more violent political rhetoric these days, particularly from Trump and his supporters.  Which isn't wholly unfair, except it seems to me a bit more honest to point out that there's no evidence I can think of that Lee Harvey Oswald ever saw those posters or that they had any influence on his thinking; indeed, if anything, their obvious right-wing origin (sometimes traced to General Edwin Walker, Oswald's previous assassination target!) might have given him a moment's pause.

That's not to say John Kennedy's assassination has no relevance to modern political problems: what killed Kennedy wasn't an offensive and threatening poster, it was the fact that a mentally-ill man with a history of erratic (and, at times, criminal) behavior had absolutely no problem mail-ordering a surplus military rifle under a fictitious name and having it sent to a post office box.  As it happens, there was a time when responsible gun owners and gun control advocates and Republicans and Democrats and right-wingers and left-wingers could all come together and agree that maybe letting just anyone have a gun was a problematic idea, and legislation was passed after JFK's death that made it just that much harder to get a firearm--you at least couldn't just call yourself "Hidell" and have a weapon sent to a P.O. box registered in yet another name.  But it's still too easy for sad, violent men who want to be famous to get their hands on lethal weapons, and there are other soft spots in the system that get exploited by people aiming to do harm.  The lesson to be drawn from Dallas '63, then, isn't that rhetoric kills, but that guns do.


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