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Polarization Of Political Opinion Spurring Political Violence?

Photo By Jonathan Simcoe

Emergency dispatchers received a call from co-workers at the Florida Turnpike in Metro, Orlando, saying that Mason Trever Toney  stabbed and killed his boss, William Steven Knight, with a trowel over a political debate. He was charged with first-degree murder and is currently being held in Orange County without bond. Such an occurrence exemplifies the harsh political divide currently plaguing the U.S. Political violence that has been on the rise since 2016, when a large polarization in political beliefs erupted throughout the country during Donald Trump’s presidential election. 

While Toney is strictly anti-government, Knight was a large supporter of President Trump. Toney is “very outspoken about his beliefs that the government is bad and out to get him,” according to his arrest affidavit. Co-workers said that, despite their political differences, “Toney and Knight were friends outside of work.”

A 2018 FBI report showed a 17 % increase in hate crimes compared to 2017. The following year, the Fragile States Index ranked the U.S. among the top five most worsened countries for political stability. In 2018, the Anti-Defamation League deemed the year the “fourth deadliest year since 1970 for domestic extremist violence,” ranking only behind 2015, 2016 and 1995, the year of the Oklahoma City bombing. 

The polarization of political opinions is further demonstrated by research conducted by scholars Nathan Kalmoe and Lilliana Mason, who found that in 2018, “20% of Republicans and 15% of Democrats believe that if members of the other party ‘are going to behave badly, they should be treated like animals.’” 

Their recent studies found that 3% of Americans believed that violence was justified if it advanced partisan goals while an additional 5% felt that such violence was “moderately justifiable.” 

Political violence in 2019 was also carefully examined. ACLED’s U.S. Pilot Project collected data on political violence and protest events across the country from July to September 2019. The findings showed that “nearly 3,200 political violence and protest events [occurred] during this pilot period.” Such political violence was classified as lethal despite its limited nature; almost 50 fatalities reported were “primarily due to mass shootings and excessive force by police.”

Toney’s alleged murder of pro-Trump Knight is far from being the first act of political violence to occur during Trump’s presidency. A yawning chasm has divided members of the Democratic and Republican parties, and with the approach of the 2020 presidential election, tensions are brewing yet again. 

It is crucial to remember that we are all humans. For one to have an opinion that differs from your own does not make them worthy of such violent acts. Each individual experiences life through their own unique lens. So, naturally, some will tend to form beliefs that could potentially contradict those of others. Instead of acting in a hostile manner, we should open our arms in a welcoming embrace. Diversity characterizes our humanity; to reject our differences is to reject what makes us human. Please, be civil throughout this election process. Not all will get their way as such is inevitable. Our best option is to grit our teeth, bear the results and attempt to better our lives accordingly. 

Alessandra Arif is a City News Intern for the 2020 winter quarter. She can be reached at aearif@uci.edu