Congratulations to the Biden Administration, several major social media services, the U.S. Conference of Mayors, the Anti-Defamation League and other organizations for joining forces to combat the spread of extremist verbal and political violence in American society.
The stakes for our democracy could not be higher, and all of us as citizens will have a critical role to play in this effort in the coming months. Sadly, our recent track record begs critical examination.
The erosion of society’s respected norms, left unchecked, has taken on gravity’s accelerating downward force. We’ve witnessed the fall from civility to hate speech; from bipartisan compromise to polarized obstruction; from public trust in truth to “fake news” to “alternative facts” to denial to deliberate disinformation; from respectful disagreement to spiteful division.
For the most part these unsettling national trends have been met with an “it is what it is” shrug of resignation, indifference, or a sense of helplessness. None of these passive reactions comes close to what’s needed from us to confront our most clear and present danger.
The once unimaginable armed mob attack on our nation’s Capital and on our system’s peaceful transfer of power on January 6,2021 remains an unforgettable stain on democracy’s public trust. More recently, news and intelligence surveys report that threats of political violence and physical attacks on public servants and processes have grown at an alarming rate in American life. This dangerous rhetoric is being sparked by violent online and TV-host vitriol as well as by inflammatory threats from shameless elected officials–past and present.
As a former member of the Senate’s Homeland Security Committee, I associate myself with President Biden’s warning call and that of Jan.6 committee Chairman Bennie Thompson (D-MS) and Vice-Chair Liz Cheney (R-WY) of the House January 6 committee. They put perilous extremist rhetoric in blunt, clear-eyed perspective: “These threats of violence and even civil war…. are not only un-American but are a threat to our democracy and the rule of law.”
None of us should ignore the possibility of America’s worst nightmare. We’re a country now awash with weapons of war. Left unchecked, extremists enraged by hateful disinformation and false conspiracy theories have the potential to ignite a violent political civil war in our upcoming elections.
What, then, is our responsibility? Our Founders told us in timeless words written at Independence Hall where both the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution were signed almost 250 years ago. The U.S. Constitution ‘s preamble speaks to —“WE THE PEOPLE” and to our purpose—IN ORDER –TO ENSURE DOMESTIC TRANQUILITY.……do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America”.
In a system founded on “consent of the governed”, a silent America in the face of potential political violence will be deemed a consenting America.
A citizens’ pre-emptive collective national call to reason is the only alternative. Political violence, real or potential, must be condemned in every conversation at every kitchen table, on every street corner and in every online chat room in America. Moral thought leaders—rural and urban, religious, political, legal, medical, media, public policy institutes, corporations and unions, educators at every level, community organizations, concerned citizens and parents—All of us must take the high ground and do our part to call America back to its senses and back from the potential for a violent political civil war.
In sports, the team that controls the ball controls the game. In debate, the voices that control the dialogue can lead the audience toward a reasoned result. To return to a safe and civil society, each of us must help create the momentum to drown out verbal violence and denounce political violence by making them the ultimate litmus tests for every party platform and every candidate in every debate in every campaign at every level in our 2022 and 2024 elections.
The fundamental premise of a functional democracy is the vote and vigilant civic engagement of its citizens. The fundamental promise of America is that each generation will leave to the next a democracy better than they themselves inherited.
Will political violence be America’s “new normal”?
Not if “WE THE PEOPLE” of America heed our duty “TO ENSURE DOMESTIC TRANQUILITY” by silencing the current destructive voices of violence and lifting our own voices in patriotic support of our republic on an upward, forward, and peaceful path.
It’s up to us!
Paul G. Kirk, Jr. is a former U.S. Senator from Massachusetts
September 16, 2022 Paul G. Kirk, Jr