We Can’t Blame Politicians if They Don’t Directly Call for Violence

Packages addressed to prominent members of the Democratic party, said to have contained pipes bombs, were intercepted by federal authorities on Oct. 24. The targets of the attacks included former President Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and CNN. A mass investigation has been launched to discover the identity of the perpetrator, and on Friday Cesar Sayoc was arrested and charged for the 14 mailed bombs thus far.

President Trump and his administration have been blamed for the tension within the country via his inflammatory rhetoric. The problem with this claim is that neither President Trump nor his administration have ever called for supporters to send explosives to Trump’s dissenters or left-leaning news institutions. Trump and his administration have said many negative things about their political opponents, but none of them have called for their supporters to send pipe bombs through the post. Politicians are not responsible for the actions of radical or reactionary members of their base if the politicians themselves are not directly calling for violence.

On June 14, 2017, James Hodgkinson went to the charity congressional baseball game in Virginia and opened fire on 24 Republican congressmen, critically injuring two, including House majority Whip Steve Scalise. Hodgkinson was a far-left activist and an avid Bernie Sanders supporter. Bernie Sanders has been extremely vocal in his opposition to the current administration and conservatives and before this incident he publicly stated the “Republican healthcare bill will kill people.” Despite Bernie Sanders inciting politically inflammatory comments, he is not responsible for the actions of Hodgkinson since Sanders has not called for the death of conservatives and Republicans. However, many have insinuated that the words and actions of President Trump, like praising Representative Gianforte for body slamming a member of the press, have increased the amount of violent actions in the country and are now responsible for the recent actions of the individual mailing these pipe bombs even before we had any facts or evidence.

The facts are plain and simple: the perpetrator was mentally unstable and had a history of criminal activity many years prior to Trump running for office. The 56-year-old Floridian was traced and identified on Friday thanks to DNA and phone records. The news media were able to take videos and pictures of Sayoc’s van, which was covered in pro-Trump stickers as well as anti-Hillary and CNN propaganda. Some on the left have been propagating that, since Sayoc was pro-Trump, Trump is directly responsible for the actions of a mentally unwell reactionary. However, Sayoc previously had many encounters with law enforcement, including in 2002 for a bombing threat and previous terror threats to judges.

In the past few weeks however, many people and reporters on both sides have been quick to jump to the conclusions that best serve their narrative. If we truly want to have better relations in this political climate, we need to keep a few things in mind.
Foremost, we need to wait for the facts of the case to fully emerge before commenting on the situation. This is probably the most unappealing plea I could make in the age of near-instantaneous news reporting, but it’s the most important. The emergence of the first mailed pipe bombs appeared on Monday, and it took a couple days for the FBI and news media to release the information of the man charged. During these days, members of the left were quick to blame Trump and his comments for increasing political violence in this country, despite having no tangible evidence for this. Meanwhile, some on the right were insinuating this was a false flag and the perpetrator was planted by the left to incriminate conservatives so close to midterms, despite not having any evidence. Blaming our political opposition for the minority of radical and reactionary members on both sides will accomplish nothing and deteriorate the relations between political parties even further.

Additionally, I’ve seen many individuals online complain about the excuse of mental illness and insanity when talking about mass shooters, and now bombers. Shooting up a baseball game of entirely Republican congressmen or sending pipe bombs through the mail to political opponents are not the behaviors of sane individuals. This is not a justification for politicians to use more inflammatory epithets, but we should recognize the mental health component in these cases. Discussing the mental health of the perpetrator of these crimes is relevant in these situations, especially since Sayoc’s family have stated his mental health was in rapid decline.

In short, we need to stop blaming the other side for violence when the politicians themselves have not called for it. Maxine Waters is a member of Congress who has called for the harassment of conservatives and prominent Republicans numerous times within the past year. If her supporters were to harass conservatives or Republicans outside of their homes, businesses, restaurants or gas stations, she would be guilty of escalating violence since she directly called for that kind of intimidation. Trump was sued for the assault of protesters at one of his rally’s and the federal judge in this case concluded the injuries were a direct result of the President’s comments. Trump is responsible for the incitement of violence in this instance. Most politicians use inflammatory rhetoric now and then, but most never escalate it to severe violence, like encouraging supporters to mail bombs to political adversaries. If the politicians themselves don’t directly call for violence to their political opposition, they should not be held accountable for the actions of a deranged individual.

Rebecca Rinaldi is a fourth year Criminology, Law and Society major. She can be reached at rinaldir@uci.edu.