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The recent incident in which FBI agents fatally shot a 74-year-old man in Utah who threatened to assassinate President Joe Biden is just one example of how violent rhetoric has created a dangerous political environment in the US. In the days leading up to this incident, there were other cases of individuals making threats against public officials. A man in Texas was sentenced to prison for threatening to kill election workers in Arizona, and a woman in Michigan was charged for lying to buy guns for her mentally ill son, who threatened to use them against Biden and the state’s governor.
The number of threats against public officials has been increasing in recent years, posing challenges for law enforcement, civil rights, and American democracy as a whole. The Capitol Police reported investigating more than double the number of threats against members of Congress compared to four years ago. Threats against election workers have also skyrocketed, with one in six reporting threats against them. Many experienced election administrators have left their positions or are considering doing so.
The increase in threats is not simply a result of a coarsening of the national discourse. Experts warn that it can be a precursor to political violence. In recent years, there have been several incidents of violence targeting public officials, such as the shooting at a congressional baseball practice in 2017 and the assault on the husband of then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in 2020. There is concern that the escalating rhetoric could lead to more acts of violence, especially as the 2024 election approaches.
The case of Craig Deleeuw Robertson, the man who was shot by FBI agents, serves as an example of the risks posed by individuals making violent threats. Robertson identified himself as a “MAGA Trumper” and had posted threats against several public officials on social media. Even after being visited by the FBI, he continued to post violent content online. While some who knew him claim he was not a danger, experts note that social media can turn private venting into menacing threats.
The problem is compounded by the fact that federal law enforcement has been slow to address organized right-wing violence, despite the evidence of such groups committing violent acts. Experts argue that the rhetoric from former President Donald Trump and his supporters, who have downplayed or even encouraged violence, contributes to the dangerous political climate.
However, it is important to note that not all Americans are susceptible to radicalization or inclined to engage in politically motivated violence. Surveys have shown that support for political violence is low among both Democrats and Republicans. Nevertheless, the perception of high support for violence among the opposite party can influence individuals’ own support for violence. It is vital to combat these misperceptions and ensure that people understand that the actions of a few do not represent the beliefs and attitudes of an entire party.
In conclusion, the increase in threats against public officials is a concerning trend that poses risks to the health of American democracy. It is crucial for law enforcement, civil rights advocates, and political leaders to address this issue and work towards creating a safer and more civil political environment.