By Dana Singiser
December 8, 2020 at 5:00 am ET
Last week, in response to President Donald Trump’s failure to condemn threats of violence against him and his staff, Georgia election official Gabriel Sterling pleaded: “It has to stop.” If our leaders don’t step up, Mr. Sterling said, “Someone’s going to get hurt, someone’s going to get shot, someone’s going to get killed.”
And I’m afraid that he’s right — because we’ve already seen it happen
In 2015, the day after Thanksgiving, I took some family from out of town to the National Zoo in Washington, D.C. We were standing just outside the reptile building, enjoying the annual ZooLights display, when I got a call from one of my colleagues at Planned Parenthood: There was an active shooter and hostage situation at the Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood Health Center.
We didn’t know it then, but Robert Dear would murder three people and injure nine others. Throughout it all, he kept repeating false, and uniformly disproved, claims about Planned Parenthood’s trafficking “baby parts.” But most disturbingly, many elected officials would continue to deploy this language months after the fact.
Today, there’s even more cause for concern: Our public figures aren’t just parroting back inflammatory rhetoric — they’re the ones starting it. Just last month, the president accused Georgia’s Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger of being an “enemy of the people.” And last week, his attorney Joe DiGenova went on the Howie Carr Show to say ousted cybersecurity chief Christopher Krebs “should be drawn and quartered” and “taken out at dawn and shot” for rejecting baseless accusations of voter fraud.
We’ve long known that a link exists between certain political rhetoric and violence. But nonetheless, it’s troubling to see what’s brewing in Georgia after this administration’s most recent remarks. At a press conference, Sterling painted a grim picture for the people manning our ballots: “death threats, physical threats, intimidation.” And chillingly, he reported that someone sent a noose to a twenty-something technician from Gwinnett County because he “deserved to be hung for treason.”
But frankly, this is nothing new; it is only the latest in an untenable string of certain public figures who not only refuse to condemn fringe elements of the conservative movement, but are actively encouraging violence against those who disagree with them. Nowhere is this more obvious than with the president himself: His rallies have long been a breeding ground for rhetorical — and actual — violence against peaceful protestors, the press and immigrants. And other figures, largely conservative, have keyed into Trump’s messaging, from their responses to the deadly white supremacist rally in Charlottesville to the massacre at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh.
In his emotional plea to our leaders — elected, and otherwise — Sterling said, “It has to stop.”
And he’s right, it must.
Because five years ago, families in Colorado Springs lost their loved ones to a violent man, inspired by violent rhetoric that wasn’t just ignored by our public figures, but was in fact provoked by them. So we know all too well that some rhetoric isn’t just contentious — it’s downright dangerous.
That’s why our elected officials and public leaders have an obligation to do more: They have to stomp out incendiary rhetoric — used to intimidate us, harm us and kill us — before it even has a chance to take root. And it’s why it’s not enough to just not use provocative language. Our leaders should be indistinguishably condemning, shaming and calling out the kinds of radical elements that inspired the violence in Colorado Springs, and now, what’s facing election officials in Georgia.
Because as Gabriel Sterling says so well, “If you take a position of leadership, show some.”
Dana Singiser is a partner at Keefe Strategies, Democratic strategist and health care expert; she was a key member of the Obama White House’s ACA team and was a senior vice president at PPFA.
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