The real reason Washington ignored Kavanaugh’s potential killer
I know about Roske’s case — as you probably also know — through coverage of The Washington Post, CNN, POLITICO, and my local TV station, among others.
But on the right, it has become an article of faith that the story is ignored by biased media. A Fox News report took stock of the small-ball treatment given to dead-tree newspapers (relegated to page 20 of the New York Times!), broadcast television (not mentioned in weekend Sunday programs -next end!) and cable yakkers (nada that evening on MSNBC’s primetime shows!). “INCREDIBLE OMISSIONsaid Sean Hannity on Twitter a few days later, inviting viewers to watch Mike Huckabee and Kayleigh McEnany discuss it that night.
In fact, the incident was quickly condemned by any public figure with a megaphone. Before long, lawmakers passed a bill to provide new protections for judges. Despite Hannity’s urge to portray an irresponsible liberal establishment that endorses mob rule, you’re unlikely to find anyone in official Washington saying anything positive about the shooter.
Still, just because it wasn’t outrageous or omitted doesn’t mean Hannity is totally wrong.
Reported in detail, the arrest has yet to become some kind of news moment in Washington, the kind of thing that dominates both media dispatch desks and secret conversations with neighbors, the kind of story that would make Roske a household name.
And that’s, at least in part, a function of something that really isn’t getting enough attention: the potential violence and intimidation in Washington’s political world has stopped looking so high profile. The man-threat-man has become the new dog-bite-man. Among the lesser effects of this cultural shift is the fact that in newsrooms and green rooms, the barrier to attention has been lifted.
Why didn’t Washington become obsessed with Kavanaugh’s potential assassin? I’d bet the answer is more prosaic than media critics would believe. For one thing, in a town that has long lured troubled people with crazy shenanigans, Roske’s story wasn’t particularly hair-raising: his gun was unloaded, he called the cops on himself, he took a cab to the judge’s house (if he hadn’t heard of Uber?). There’s nothing less compelling to us media types in all our fake world-weariness than an insufficiently weird monster of the week.
More importantly, Roske’s story should earn a spot on our mental lists of near misses. The shooters nearly killed Reps. Gabby Giffords and Steve Scalise. A few miles down Connecticut Avenue from Kavanaugh’s house, a gunman motivated by an anti-Clinton conspiracy theory shot inside Comet Pizza. Threats against federal judges have increased by 400%, according to a report last year. Threats against members of Congress have increased 107%, according to Capitol Police. Google for examples and you’ll find a collection of news reports that span the continent as well as the ideological spectrum, from Andy Harris, Maryland’s East Coast right-winger, to Norma Torres, a South Democrat. California. Capitol Police are opening offices in California and Florida to monitor threats.
There was also the small issue of a real attack on the United States Capitol last year, which left seven people dead and rioters chanting the hanging of the incumbent vice president.
But even a tally of threats doesn’t quite capture how an impending sense of potential threat has seeped into the consciousness of the village. Officials fear doxing and the crazies it might bring to their doorsteps. The inboxes of journalists, especially women and members of minority groups, are filling with threatening messages. People don’t assume everything is cosplay online anymore. Why should they?
A more sophisticated conservative critique of Roske’s coverage argues that the story didn’t resonate because a pro-choice Californian doesn’t fit Washington’s liberal image of what a crazed, Glock-wielding lunatic is. meant to be – which makes it easier to ignore as a one-off. But even that bit of psychological escapism wouldn’t be possible if the environment didn’t provide so many examples of what a “real” threat looks like.
On the right, outrage over the allegedly ignored assassination attempt has recently turned into agitation over the recent wave of protests at the homes of judges, including Kavanaugh. It’s easy to brush off complaints, and not just because some of them come from people who pissed off the insurgency: These judges have taken away a constitutional right, and they have the nerve to complain about a few people banging pots and pans outside their homes? It stinks of bad faith efforts to change the subject. Yet in the context of 2022, if you are at home while protesters are outside, you may feel intimidated. And a town full of anxious, intimidated people is likely to behave differently on all sorts of things.
It’s also easy to miss the magnitude of the change this represents. Until recently, the norm in Washington was that everyone sometimes had to be a civilian, go out to dinner or walk the dog in peace. This had its drawbacks (it surely encouraged establishment bubble thinking), but it also meant that moments of intimidation or threat were truly shocking.
This change is dangerous whether or not Kavanaugh’s shooter was.
“We talk a lot, especially on the left, about attacks on democracy, disturbing real limits to the right to vote and access to the ballot and gerrymandering, and all of these things are important. But there’s no faster way to lose democracy than through violence,” says Amanda Ripley, a longtime Washington journalist who has spent much of the past few years researching a book about intractable conflict and how to overcome them. “In my opinion, we should talk about it.”
Like discredited elections, violence – or even the prospect of violence – delegitimizes institutions and social norms and the various safeguards of society. ‘Threats to the lives of judges are a fact, part of the playbook everywhere’ for undermining democracy, says Ripley, whose book draws lessons from acrimonious divorces, gang feuds and country insurgencies in development to analyze the conflict-confused state of the US government.
It is not certain that the powerful in Washington can do much about it. In the 19th century, when true elect duels and beat each other to the death with canes, the elites might have had the ability to subdue hooligans, who could presumably be coerced into committee assignments, patronage or disinvitations. fancy dinner parties or any other tool that can shape the behavior of insiders. Much of the sense of threat in contemporary politics comes from Internet-fueled dummies, acting in what they see as their side’s interest. How to redeem them?
I was struck by one thing in particular that Ripley told me about de-escalation research: don’t trust your instincts. “In any conflict as intense as this, your intuition is going to make things worse.” She was referring, for example, to the desire to go demonstrate to a judge to show how furious you are. “It’s going to have an effect on other people and it might not help the cause.” As a journalist, of course, my gut tells me to expose who is responsible for this new climate of danger, the asymmetrical era of political misery that has brought Washington to this point. But in the spirit of peace, I will ignore this intuition.
Instead, I’ll stick with this: A troubled man with a gun came to town with thoughts of murder. It’s a shocking thing that happened. The fact that it seems to happen so often shouldn’t make it any less shocking.