I had just settled into my hotel room in Canada, turned on CNN, and was stunned. At a protest held days after President-elect Donald Trump’s victory, a woman declared:
“If we don’t fight, who is going to fight for us? People had to die for your freedom where we’re at today. We can’t just do rallies, we have to fight back…There will be casualties on both sides. There will be, because people have to die to make a change in this world.”
A few nights later, demonstrators took to the streets in Toronto where I was visiting. One demonstrator acknowledged that they are stuck with President-elect Trump, “unless someone takes him out.” Another proclaimed that she “would like to see him suffer.”
I had no vote in the US elections, took no sides throughout the campaign, and didn’t celebrate or bemoan the election results. But as a neutral observer, I feel the need to state my fear: the moment people are openly calling for deaths as a reaction to a democratic election, then democracy is in severe danger.
The 2016 election campaign was certainly filled with inflammatory statements from both sides. Now that recounts are being called for and may actually be carried out, the rhetoric from both sides is sure to rise again.
It must be noted that this is not the first time that such language has been used in US elections.
In 1796, Federalists called Thomas Jefferson’s Democratic-Republican followers “cutthroats who walk in rags and sleep amidst filth and vermin.” In 1828, a pamphlet produced by supporters of President John Quincy Adams called the democratic candidate, Andrew Jackson, a “drunkard, thief and liar.” In 1940, Republican candidate Wendell Willkie told crowds that voting for President Franklin Roosevelt would result in war and “wooden crosses for sons and brothers and sweethearts.” And these are just a few examples among many.
The difference is that after all the hard-fought campaigns throughout US history that were filled with accusations and fear-mongering on all sides, people did not head to the streets calling for the assassination of the president-elect.
I believe that the build up to these current protests and calls for violence can be traced to highly publicized words and rhetoric used during the campaign, which spread to the masses via social media. As an example, when an NFL quarterback like Colin Kaepernick — who is looked up to by millions of young people — said that “there are bodies in the street” and “people are getting away with murder,” it has a very negative impact.
Inflammatory words can lead to calls for violence, and such calls can lead to assassination, and the breakdown of democracy as we know it. We in Israel know that all too well. In my latest book, “Words Can Kill: The Untold Story of the Rabin Assassination and the Lessons for Today” Words Can Kill: The Untold Story of the Rabin Assassination and the Lessons for Today,” which tells the thrilling true story of Dvir Kariv, a Shin Bet agent who decided to kill Rabin assassin Yigal Amir in his jail cell, Kariv describes how the interrogation of the assassin revealed that he believed most of the country supported his murdering the prime minister.
Warped as his mind was, he had reason to believe that: in public demonstrations throughout Israel prior to the assassination 21 years ago this month, Rabin was openly called a traitor, there were pictures of him in a Nazi uniform, posters of his head were shown inside a target, and a coffin with Rabin’s name on it proudly held aloft. Political extremism and dangerous use of words created an atmosphere that led to the assassination of a prime minister, and almost led to the murder of the assassin, which could have spiralled the country into even greater chaos.
Lest anyone think the idea of calling for violence leading to a political assassination in the US is far-fetched — last week we commemorated 53 years since President Kennedy’s assassination. His assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, wrote in his diary that he regularly read extremist materials that he found “in the back dusty shelves of libraries.” These materials led to Oswald’s belief, according to his friend Michael Paine, that “violence was the only effective tool.”
“Life and death can be found in the tongue” (Proverbs 18:21) the Bible teaches. It is a clear warning regarding the dangers of extremist language.
World leaders and people of influence must constantly reflect on their actions and words to ensure they do not inspire fringe personalities to take action. They must demand civility in the political sphere, and quiet those voices or movements that deliberately incite violence and use hateful and extremist terminology. History has already proven that words can kill people, and destroy one of the wondrous blessings of modern civilization: democracy itself. We cannot wait for a major catastrophe to teach that lesson.