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On Lying About Violence
In a political system that begets and rewards violence, Paul Pelosi's fractured skull is not the first. It will not be the last.
Edited by David Swanson
A man breaks into a political leader’s home.
It’s well known where she lives, and for the past half-decade, if not longer, she’s been the target of escalating conspiracy theories. She has been called a demon and a drinker of children’s blood and a pedophile and a procurer of children for pedophilic Satanic rituals. Over the past few years, during a country’s social fracture in the grips of a deadly contagion, the intensity and ubiquity of these theories have increased a thousandfold. Almost two years ago a violent coup attempt cheered on by the opposing party’s president threatened the nation’s government. A colleague of this leader, in the opposing party, tweeted out her whereabouts as armed men swarmed through the legislative chambers.
The intruder breaks in, but the leader isn’t there. Her husband is.
It’s 2:30 in the morning, and her husband—82 years old, asleep in his underwear—is forced into a rapprochement with the intruder, who is armed with a rope, zip ties, and a hammer. He intends to use it on the political leader. The intruder asks where she is again and again. Her husband calls 911.
The police take eight minutes to arrive, and when they do the two men are found grappling for the hammer, and in full view of the police the intruder bludgeons this eighty-two-year-old man in the head. It’s as close as two humans can be—blood, bone, skull—and when the intruder is taken away by the police he tells them he had fantasized about torturing the political leader, about breaking her kneecaps, about her being forced to enter the legislative chamber in a wheelchair. He says he is fighting against tyranny, just like the nation’s founders.
The political leader’s husband is in brain surgery. His arms and hands are wounded. His skull is fractured.
Reporters find the attacker’s long digital trail, which granularly documents his descent into conspiratorial thinking, a downward spiral that ends in a freefall. He believes the political leader tortures children; he is a fan of Adolf Hitler; he believes the 2020 election was stolen, and the fraud was orchestrated by Jews. He posts about Jews consorting with the Devil, shares photos of political figures transfigured into rotting flesh. Fifteen years ago he was a hippie, writing New Age-themed posts about his enthusiasm for nudism, and making hemp jewelry. By 2022 he’s talking about Jews faking Covid death rates, about the evils of transgender rights, about fairies and “feminazis”, about Holocaust denial, and about how the opposition party’s political leadership is in actual fact an organized pedophile ring.
His beliefs are shared by millions and have migrated to the center of the opposition party, no longer confined to its fringes.
Over the ensuing days the political leader’s husband remains in critical care.
The attack inspires little condemnation in the opposing party, most of it tepid. The opposition party has consistently made this political leader the face of their loathing. They have nurtured and encouraged the growing segment of their base that push the conspiracy theories naming her as a child-killer and a pedophile. Nonetheless, opposition party politicians and pundits ascribe the attack to general crime rates or an isolated madman, if they acknowledge it at all.
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By the day after the attack, two things have happened: the victim has become target for jokes by opposition-party candidates and pundits—a former president’s son posts a picture of a hammer and a pair of men’s briefs and suggests it as a Halloween costume. An opposition party candidate in Arizona suggests that the political leader had insufficient security and her audience laughs and applauds.
The second thing that happens—and it begins right away, in the hours after the attack, and snowballs with extraordinary rapidity—is that an entirely different narrative takes root and rapidly gains currency among the opposition party. What was a straightforward attack—an attempted mutilation of a well-known political figure—becomes the subject of a wild, wending theory that pulses with homophobia.
By 48 hours in the alternate version of the story goes as follows:
The political leader is a woman and her spouse is a man, and this lends itself—in the opposition party’s rigid and retrograde views of gender, anyway—to immediate intimations emasculation, of unmanliness. So, quickly, it is determined that the opposition leader’s husband, who has just undergone brain surgery, was not attacked by a political assailant but by his own secret gay lover.
The fact that a man was asleep in his underwear becomes a titillating suggestion. The terrifying closeness of an attack with a hammer becomes a suggestion of intimacy.
Baseless questions are raised: investigations into patterns of shattered glass dispersal, tortured reexaminations of the assailant’s political past, the victim’s months-old DUI charge, the reputation of the city of San Francisco as a haven for crime and for gay men. It is suggested by a prominent conservative pundit that the assailant was a gay prostitute.
The opposition party’s favored news channel begins to broadcast this theory under the guise of “just asking questions.” A newly minted social-media CEO and billionaire broadcasts the theory to hundreds of millions of people, linking to a blog post from a conspiracy site that had previously accused the Clintons of murder.
There are several assumptions buried here:
The spouse of a powerful woman must not truly be a man; he must be gay; gay men are not true men.
Gay men court violence and deserve violence.
Assault on the political opposition is to be expected and to be minimized. It is a topic worthy of mirth and little more, to be winked at and ultimately, covertly, celebrated.
Naked fact can be twisted easily; what matters is not the plausibility of the lies but their number and the speed of their dissemination.
Conspiracy-theory networks are so deeply intertwined in the party’s base that this is a productive and energizing strategy.
Here is a conclusion:
This is not a functional political system.
This is a political system that begets and rewards violence.
Murderous vigilantes have become darlings of this party before.
Conspiracy is a principal tactic of both obfuscation of events that this party deems politically unfavorable, and demonization of their political opponents.
The shrugs and titters that greeted this incident will become an open embrace of violence as tactic and strategy.
There are already paramilitary groups openly aligned with the opposition party; that association can grow closer than it is, and more prominent.
Conducting fair elections in such an environment is not truly possible.
This fractured skull is not the first. It will not be the last.
There is an election in less than two weeks in which this party—the party of violence and lying about violence—is likely to regain control of the legislature. There will be no turning back from that point. Blood in a bruised palm and a broken skull is a beginning. It is not an ending. It is a promise.