How did we get to this point?


How did we get to the point where some unhinged raging maniac would show up at the home of a Supreme Court justice with a gun? It is the foreseeable consequence of too many of our political leaders treating the emotions of fear and anger as convenient tools to get what they want.

Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer, while speaking on the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court building, March 4, 2020:

I want to tell you [Justice] Gorsuch, I want to tell you [Justice] Kavanaugh, you have unleashed the whirlwind and you will pay the price. You won’t know what hit you if you go forward with these awful decisions.

Chief Justice John Roberts, the following day:

Justices know that criticism comes with the territory, but threatening statements of this sort from the highest levels of government are not only inappropriate, they are dangerous. All members of the court will continue to do their job, without fear or favor, from whatever quarter.

In a subsequent statement responding to Roberts, Schumer said his remarks “were a reference to the political price Senate Republicans will pay for putting these justices on the court, and warning that the justices will unleash a major grassroots movement on the issue of reproductive rights.” But that ensuing spin was obviously a lie. Schumer didn’t threaten that Mitch McConnell and other Senate Republicans would pay the price or wouldn’t know what hit them; he specifically directed his remarks to Gorsuch and Kavanaugh. The New York senator knew he had screwed up by directly threatening the justices with harm, so he pretended he had not said what everyone had heard him say. Few people in the national news really thought much of Schumer’s remarks, and they were largely forgotten. Look at that date again — within a week or so, the Covid-19 pandemic shut down the world.

But Schumer’s comment — spurred by a case involving a Louisiana law that would restrict access to abortion services — looks spectacularly reckless in light of Wednesday’s news.

A man with a gun and a knife was detained by police early Wednesday near the Maryland home of Brett M. Kavanaugh after making threats against the Supreme Court justice, according to local and federal officials.

Nicholas John Roske, 26, of Simi Valley, Calif., was charged with attempted murder of a Supreme Court justice after he called authorities and said he was having suicidal thoughts and wanted to kill a specific justice, according to federal prosecutors.

It's worth noting the continuing waves of intimidation, rage, and threats directed at particular Supreme Court justices:

In September 2021, a mob of pro-abortion protesters from “ShutDownDC” descended upon Justice Kavanaugh’s home over the Texas abortion-law case. Then, we had the unprecedented leak of Justice Samuel Alito’s draft opinion in Dobbs, which would overturn Roe v. Wade. 

In the aftermath, a pro-abortion group “RuthSentUs” publicly shared maps to the homes of the six Republican-appointed justices, and sent protests there to intimidate the justices. We learned that “law enforcement agencies are investigating social-media threats to burn down or storm the Supreme Court building and murder justices and their clerks,” yet Democrats such as Schumer and Anne Kuster dismissed the mob threat to the Court as no big deal. 

The Biden White House pointedly refused to condemn either the leak or the targeting of homes, with Jen Psaki saying that “the president’s view is that there’s a lot of passion, a lot of fear, a lot of sadness from many, many people across this country about what they saw in that leaked document” and that “I know that there’s an outrage right now, I guess, about protests that have been peaceful to date, and we certainly do continue to encourage that, outside judges’ homes, and that’s the president’s position.” 

As protests escalated, churches were vandalized, and a Molotov cocktail was thrown at a pro-life office, Psaki finally allowed that “that should never include violence, threats, or vandalism. Judges perform an incredibly important function in our society, and they must be able to do their jobs without concern for their personal safety.”

Protests at a judge’s home are already illegal under federal law, but the Biden administration made no move to prosecute the protesters, again on the theory that breaking federal law in a political protest in D.C. is no big deal. A bipartisan bill to beef up security for the justices unanimously passed the Senate, but Nancy Pelosi blocked it in the House. Meanwhile, violence by the group “Jane’s Revenge” has escalated, including just last night, firebombing a crisis pregnancy center in Buffalo.

Yesterday, groups such as Ruth Sent Us revealed their uncontrollable compulsion to announce to the world that they had learned nothing from recent events — calling Kavanaugh “an abusive alcoholic” in their “thoughts and prayers” tweet to Justice Kavanaugh and his wife, while announcing that the Thursday “Voice Your Anger” protest directed at Justice Amy Coney Barrett would continue to meet in front of Lemon Road Elementary School in Falls Church, Va. Say, has anything happened lately that might make people particularly worried about someone angry and potentially unhinged hanging around an elementary school?

So why did Chuck Schumer, allegedly a smart man, use those words back in March 2020?

Schumer felt he needed to look strong and tough and emotionally aligned with the grassroots of his party. His audience hated Brett Kavanaugh with a passion, and he feared the consequences of not echoing that rage. And he simply didn’t bother to think through the potential consequences of what he was saying. Once he did, he had enough wherewithal to recognize how bad it looked, and thus he implausibly pretended he had been talking about Republican senators instead.

Just about every bit of communication that reaches your eyes or ears aims to elicit an emotional response. Advertisers, entertainers, elected officials, political candidates, prime-time TV hosts, columnists, and even morning-newsletter writers want you to feel some emotional response to what they’re telling you. Sometimes, they want you to feel happy and laugh. Sometimes, they share a sad story illustrating the unavoidable tragedies of life. Sometimes, they want to spark curiosity and wonder.

But the two easiest emotional buttons to push are fear and anger.

Those two emotions rise in us quickly and easily because there is an evolutionary advantage to both. A person who feels fear will recognize threats and danger and avoid them. A neurotic person is rarely happy, and may in fact be miserable, but the one thing they can be assured of is that they’re not likely to be blindsided by a problem. They’re always on alert for signs that something is going wrong and something terrible is going to happen. A person who feels anger often feels motivated to do something about a problem. There are all kinds of bad consequences to excessive anger, but those who are angry often feel a sense of temporary empowerment. They’re “mad as hell, and they’re not gonna take it anymore.” And the world does not lack fearful threats or outraging injustices.

But both of those emotions are like fire: useful and even necessary when kept under control and applied carefully and with limits, extraordinarily dangerous when they spread out of control.

You’ve heard all the stories of fear and paranoia that ran out of control and tore a community apart — the Salem Witch Trials, etc. We have all witnessed the consequences of out-of-control anger — the enraged protest that turns into a riot that harms the community the protesters ostensibly intended to help.

True leadership means handling the public’s fear and anger like nitroglycerin. You don’t just toss it around willy-nilly, and a little bit goes a long way. In a better world, every elected official in the U.S. would recognize the inherent danger in demonizing any individual or group. Over and over again in our society, people choose to define groups by the worst actions of relatively few individuals.

Not every illegal immigrant is a rapist — very few are, in fact. This doesn’t mean that the ones who are shouldn’t be caught and prosecuted, and this doesn’t mean we should just ignore our immigration laws. But if a leader uses the terms “illegal immigrant” and “rapist” as synonyms, people will start to treat the former like the latter.

Not every gun owner is a ticking time bomb of violent rage. Not every young black man is a gang member. Not every moody teenager is an aspiring school shooter.

Alas, we don’t have particularly responsible leaders, and they see the fear and anger buttons as the easiest ways to build their support. “Our political opponents are decent human beings and fellow citizens with some wrongheaded ideas and an inaccurate sense of how the world works” just doesn’t fire people up and get them eager to click, tune in, make donations, and vote.

What’s more, a lot of people out there are looking for someone to hate, and politics gives them a convenient enemy — or perhaps more importantly, a socially acceptable enemy.

It is very revealing to see who it is socially acceptable to get mad at within the circles of American elites and who gets a pass. In July 2013, Chelsea Manning was found guilty of 17 violations of the Espionage Act — after pleading guilty to another ten! — and sentenced to 35 years in the Fort Leavenworth Disciplinary Barracks. The former Army intelligence analyst sent 750,000 classified or sensitive documents to WikiLeaks. By 2017, President Obama had commuted Manning’s sentence and the convicted felon was enjoying a glamorous photoshoot in Vogue.

If you run around still fuming that Chelsea Manning escaped the full consequences of violating a sacred oath and breaking a slew of laws, a lot of people will look at you strangely. If you were ever supposed to be angry about something like that, you’re not supposed to be angry anymore. There are new allegedly horrible threats to society we’re all supposed to scorn, like Gina Carano and Aaron Rodgers and Dave Chappelle and Dave Weigel. Up until very recently, Elon Musk was the cool guy building rockets and electric cars, but now he’s “dangerous,” according to Elizabeth Warren. Dangerous — meaning we’re supposed to fear him.

In certain elite circles, it’s not just common but almost required to rage at particular political figures — Brett Kavanaugh, Donald Trump, Mitch McConnell, Ron DeSantis. It’s mostly Republicans, but you can probably get away with raging at Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema. (Clearly, chasing Sinema into the bathroom isn’t considered extreme or unhinged behavior in certain circles; in fact, it is seen as laudable, a demonstration of a person’s devotion to the cause.) If your sensible white-collar neighbors, with their “In This House We Believe” yard sign, know who Texas Democratic representative Henry Cuellar is, it’s probably socially acceptable to rage and fume at him, too. But you never want your object of hate to be too obscure. “No H8,” except for when you’re really mad at a government official . . . or members of the opposing party.

This is the consequence of runaway fear and anger. Your political foes aren’t really seen as human beings anymore; they’re monsters. Human beings, your fellow citizens, are entitled to some baseline level of respect, even if you disagree strongly. Members of the in-group must be treated one way, while we’re free to treat members of the out-group any way we please.

But monsters? There’s nothing reasonable or understandable about a monster. Monsters can’t be reasoned or negotiated with, and it’s usually impossible to coexist with them. The only real long-term solution to the threats and provocations of a monster is to destroy it.

The nutjob with a gun who took a cab to Kavanaugh’s house yesterday — after finding the address online — was utterly convinced he was on his way to slay a monster.

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