It’s Happened Before: A more violent normal

Graphic by Aliza Kibel
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The late Roman Republic is, in many minds, synonymous with political violence, civil war and the erosion of republican values. Less remembered, however, is how it got there. Rome wasn’t built in a day, as the saying goes, and neither did it — or at least its republican version — fall in a day. Thus the long path to Caesar began with a man who, unlike Caesar, never got a Shakespeare play: Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus. Gracchus’ life and career are surprisingly unimportant in examining his impact. Suffice it to say that, after pursuing radical populist solutions to economic problems and obtaining political power through uncustomary methods, he incurred the wrath of a conservative faction of the Roman senate. Given his policies, this was unsurprising. What was surprising is how they stopped him: by gathering a mob to massacre him and his followers. Violence had, for the first time, become a political tactic, one that soon became irresistible.

On Oct. 28 at 2:30 a.m., a man broke into Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s San Francisco home looking for her. Unable to find her, as she was in Washington D.C. at the time, he contented himself with attacking her husband, Paul Pelosi, with a hammer, leaving him with serious, though luckily not life-threatening, injuries. One shudders to imagine what might have happened had the targeted Pelosi been home. Though a motive has not been officially announced, it is hard to believe that an attack on the Speaker of the House of Representatives could have been motivated by anything but venomous ideology. In other words, this was an instance of violence used for political reasons. 

There are many differences between this and the murder of Tiberius Gracchus. To start, this was a lone wolf attack not orchestrated by political rivals. Unlike Gracchus, Pelosi is not a radical (or a populist) nor has she flagrantly violated American political norms. But Pelosi’s political opposites are not fully innocent either. This attack comes after years of violent rhetoric directed against Pelosi including but not limited to a Super Bowl ad depicting a congressional candidate firing at an actor playing Pelosi, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene indirectly advocating for violence against Pelosi on social media, and a tweet from Rep. Tom Emmer depicting him firing a rifle with the hashtag #FirePelosi. Even after the attack, despite broad condemnation from both sides of the aisle, people as prominent as former first son Donald Trump Jr. were posting memes about it. 

This attack is not as poisonous to the country as Gracchus’ murder was to the Roman Republic, yet it still carries the same troubling signs. Political violence, while most dangerous when orchestrated by politicians, is not limited to them. There are more radicals than ever before, radicals that will seize upon extreme political messaging as justification for their violent tactics. For them, at least, political violence is becoming more normalized as a means of thwarting policy. Paul Pelosi will not be the last victim to it.

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