As shocked Americans watch the news on the wave of bombs across their country, they are once again learning a lesson the Middle East knows from painful experience: Sustained verbal incitement often leads, quickly and tragically, to physical violence.
It is a lesson that is front and center in Israel at the moment, as the country commemorates the 23rd anniversary of the assassination of then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. His murder, on November 4, 1995, was preceded by a campaign of threatening rhetoric and dehumanizing signs and posters distributed by his opponents. These smeared him as a criminal and a traitor, and visually depicted him as a terrorist threat.
No Venn diagram was needed to see the connection between the targets of the pipe bombs mailed or planted between Monday and Wednesday: There was George Soros the “troublemaker”; Barack and Michelle Obama; and Bill and “crooked” Hillary Clinton.
Additional and later reports said targets included the likes of former Obama administration CIA Director John Brennan at the CNN offices and former Democratic National Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz.
All of the bomb recipients are familiar figures on right-wing Twitter accounts and chat boards, starring in memes even more vicious than anything imagined in Rabin’s era.
- Pipe bombs sent to Obama, Clinton and CNN N.Y. headquarters
- The moment CNN abruptly ends broadcast over bomb scare
- Secret Service: Reports that it intercepted suspicious package sent to White House 'are incorrect'
It is also impossible to ignore the most obvious common factor in the choice of bomb destinations – the fact that the Democratic former presidents and presidential candidate, former intelligence chief, liberal megadonor and prominent left-wing Jewish-American politician have all been slammed repeatedly and harshly by President Donald Trump, in his rallies and on Twitter.
As the secret services and FBI work furiously to control the situation and investigate the level of actual danger posed by the devices, a reckoning is also taking place around the question of whether the president’s divisive comments, which have bordered on incitement, may have played a role in creating the violent political atmosphere. Is it such a major leap from “Lock her up!” – the common chant at Trump rallies – to “Blow her up”?
Trump is not only responsible for directing the populist rage machine’s fury against these particular individuals, but also for ramping up the mood in the weeks leading up to the 2018 midterm elections.
As New York Mayor Bill de Blasio noted in his press conference in front of the barricaded Time Warner Building on Wednesday, there is “hatred in the air.”
Rhetoric about “angry mobs” and caravans poised to “invade” the country – which Republican politicians falsely claimed were funded by Soros – has created a pre-election atmosphere of fear and resentment, which could easily fuel an ideologically driven terrorist or group.
The president has brought characterizing Democrats as criminals who need to be punished into the realms of acceptable speech in his party.
This “criminalization” of politics was on display on Tuesday evening, at a campaign event in Georgetown, Texas, for incumbent Republican Sen. Ted Cruz when a supporter shouted “Lock him up!” – his cry referring to Cruz’s opponent, Democrat Beto O’Rourke, in a hard-fought race.
Instead of condemning the comment, Cruz joked, “Well, you know, there’s a double-occupancy cell with Hillary Clinton.”
Cruz struck a far different tone on Wednesday as news of the pipe bomb deliveries unfolded, showing how even Republicans enjoying Trump’s support are aware that words can lead to actions.
The longer it takes to track down those responsible for the pipe bombs, the more likely it will be that the conspiracy-minded on the right will latch onto false-flag theories.
Only minutes after news of the multiple pipe bomb situations began to spread across the airwaves and social media platforms, alt-right quarters of the internet began furious speculation that the explosives were planted in order to set up the right and motivate Democratic voters. News that the bombs sent to CNN, Soros and the Clintons were all linked will probably be met with as much skepticism.
If this wave of small-scale terror attempts concludes without any actual damage to life or property, the United States will have received a wake-up call to the deadly consequences of free-floating anger, fearmongering and incitement.
Trump condemned the attacks hours after reports initially came out, saying that "acts or threats of political violence of any kind have no place in the United States of America."
But if America’s leaders – including its president – are wise, they will adjust their tone accordingly and “bring down the temperature,” as Mayor de Blasio put it in his press conference.
Little of Trump’s past behavior suggests he is capable of doing so. But if enough leaders are, hope remains that the dangerous dehumanization of political opponents can be halted before the situation escalates to the level of strife that led to the bloody trauma and loss Israel suffered in 1995.