Night view of the Supreme Court Building in Washington, United States
Night view of the Supreme Court Building in Washington, United States
Humanize From Discovery Institute's Center on Human Exceptionalism

Political Passions Threaten a New ‘Bleeding Kansas’

Originally published at The Epoch Times

The attempted assassination of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh is a warning that our national politics are careening out of control.

After pro-abortion activists posted Kavanaugh’s home address on the internet as an intimidation tactic, a California man—let’s not name him—flew to Washington with well-laid plans to allegedly kill the justice as a means of preventing the overturning of Roe v. Wade. Thankfully, the alleged assassin failed and is now in jail and charged with attempted murder.

Kavanaugh’s close call was hardly the first episode of politically motivated violence in recent years. In 2017, a Bernie Sanders supporter attempted the mass assassination of Republican lawmakers as they practiced for an annual charity baseball game, almost killing Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.). In the wake of George Floyd’s murder by a police officer in 2020, violent riots resulted in mass arson and several deaths. The Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol resulted in serious injuries to several police officers and one unarmed rioter being shot to death. Things are getting so volatile that the Department of Homeland Security warned the nation of “a heightened threat environment” for political violence in the months ahead.

Does this volatility presage a full-fledged civil war? No. We aren’t that estranged from each other. But that shouldn’t make us sanguine. I do believe that we may be entering a time of ideological mayhem reminiscent of “Bleeding Kansas,” the historical term for the political violence between adamant pro- and anti-slave partisans contesting for political control over the then-territory that took up to 200 lives.

The issues are different, to be sure, but the parallels between Kansas in the 1850s and now are disturbing. Today, as then, our peaceability is threatened by increasing partisan antagonisms. Today, as then, the issues that divide us are moral and cultural rather than technocratic, making them unamenable to compromise. Today, as then, public passions are pushing the more extreme among us toward violence as a means of attaining political victory.

Consider the following issues that are at the boiling point.

Abortion: Just as virtually every political controversy in the mid-19th century eventually involved slavery, these days all public disputes lead ultimately to abortion. Indeed, a leaked Supreme Court draft opinion that would seem to presage the overturning of Roe v. Wade was not only the primary motive for the failed Kavanaugh assassination attempt, but also in the wake of its publishing, pro-abortion radicals have vandalized and/or fire-bombed pro-life organization offices and crisis pregnancy centers, with the threatening message left at some locations, “If abortion isn’t safe, neither are you!” On the other side of the spectrum, Wyoming’s only abortion clinic was recently set ablaze (and in previous years, abortionists have been murdered). If Roe is indeed overturned, these actions could foreshadow worse yet to come.

Race: Even though George Floyd’s murderer is in prison, race relations remain a fire keg with radicals ready to take to the streets at the slightest pretext of real or imagined oppression. If, God forbid, an unarmed African American is killed again by police—particularly if it’s streamed on the internet in the way Floyd’s death was—cities could erupt.

Crime: Lax law enforcement practices in progressive cities such as San Francisco, Seattle, and Los Angeles have led to a terrible surge in property crime and violence. If people ever come to believe that the police can’t—or won’t—protect them, some may be tempted to take the law into their own hands.

Guns: With the recent atrocities in Buffalo and Uvalde, the country is again angrily arguing over the meaning of the Second Amendment and how to prevent mass shootings. The resulting policies could lead to violence—particularly if a gun confiscation scheme is attempted. In this regard, it’s also worth noting that Kavanaugh’s would-be assassin told police that a second reason he allegedly wanted to kill him was the potential for a Supreme Court ruling striking down gun control legislation.

Voting: The Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol breach was ignited by the certainty among Trump partisans that the 2020 election was stolen. At the same time, I believe that if the former president had won the election, left-wing riots would have erupted around the country. To say the least, charges and counter-charges by partisans about supposed election fraud and/or voter suppression have created a tinder box atmosphere that could combust.

How do we keep the peace while still participating vigorously in the public square? Bleeding Kansas came to an end in 1859, when a newly elected territorial governor brokered a cease-fire. The contestants simply stood down and agreed to focus on peaceable means of persuasion. Similarly banking the passions of contemporary politics will require responsible actions from our leaders and self-restraint among contesting partisans.

First, government officials should cease all incendiary rhetoric. For example, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) must apologize for threatening Justices Kavanaugh and Neil Gorsuch, by yelling at a rally, “You have released the whirlwind, and you will pay the price! You won’t know what hit you if you go forward with these awful decisions.” Similarly, former President Donald Trump should cease the deeply personal invective against his political opponents.

Secondly, federalism offers a way forward without surrender. We are a 50–50 country. Many of the most contentious issues that divide us are currently unamenable to national solutions because half the country won’t accept the outcome and dissenting public officials will refuse to properly administer the law—a phenomenon we’re already seeing in some places. This means the left and right both need to temper their desire to legislate one-size-fits-all solutions for the entire nation and strive to enact policies at the state and local levels. Forcing Nebraska to be like California—and vice-versa—simply won’t work.

Finally, let’s grant each other a little charity. Rather than assuming our political opponents act with malign motives, let’s strive to relearn the adage that reasonable people may differ. We should also agree that violence and threats thereof against political opponents are never justified, which notably President Joe Biden has failed to do personally in the wake of the Kavanaugh plot.

Pursuing less volatile approaches to resolving our abiding differences may be less satisfying than demonizing political opponents. Convincing the entire country of the righteousness of our causes through committed persuasion will certainly take longer than “winning now.” But that way is also far more likely to promote comity, lead to the enactment of enduring public policies majorities will accept, and keep the peace.

Wesley J. Smith

Chair and Senior Fellow, Center on Human Exceptionalism
Wesley J. Smith is Chair and Senior Fellow at the Discovery Institute’s Center on Human Exceptionalism. Wesley is a contributor to National Review and is the author of 14 books, in recent years focusing on human dignity, liberty, and equality. Wesley has been recognized as one of America’s premier public intellectuals on bioethics by National Journal and has been honored by the Human Life Foundation as a “Great Defender of Life” for his work against suicide and euthanasia. Wesley’s most recent book is Culture of Death: The Age of “Do Harm” Medicine, a warning about the dangers to patients of the modern bioethics movement.