America Is Violent

Photo: AP

On Wednesday morning, House Majority Whip Steve Scalise was shot while practicing for Congress’ annual charity baseball game in Alexandria, Virginia. Two Capitol Police officers, a lobbyist and a congressional staffer were also wounded. The shooter, Illinois man James T. Hodgkinson, had a history of domestic abuse, as mass shooters often do, and was apparently a Bernie Sanders supporter. He died after being shot by Capitol Police officers. Scalise remains in critical condition at MedStar Washington Hospital Center.

In the wake of the news, Vox’s Ezra Klein tweeted this:

Klein got (rightfully) dragged for it:


It is a mistake to limit your definition of “political violence” to riots and assassinations alone. It is indeed rare that our elected representatives are shot down in the street; it is decidedly less rare that our citizens are gunned down by armed agents of the state, with the unqualified support of the entire justice system (and a significant level of public support, too).

The founding myth of America is that the country was benevolently settled by morally righteous colonists; that the nation they founded constituted the leading light of democracy in the world, thanks to the timeless wisdom of our Founding Fathers. But bloodshed has been an essential component of the American experiment since day one.


America is a bloody place, and remains so even in an era of declining violent crime. Americans are ten times more likely to be killed by gun violence than people in other developed countries. The shooting on Wednesday morning marked the 154th mass shooting in this year alone, and the sixth incident this week. Just hours after the Alexandria shooting, news broke of another shooting at a UPS facility in San Franscisco, which left three people dead and two injured.

In American politics, as in American life, violence is not the exception, but the norm. Our political system is organized in such a way that structural state violence against the poor or otherwise marginalized isn’t considered real violence, but that violence is nonethelesswoven into the fabric of American politics. As Chris Hooks wrote shortly before the election, politics is “the way we distribute pain”:

It’s not a sport or a fraternity or a game. It’s how we determine who gets medication and who dies young, who learns in a class of twenty kids and who learns in a class of thirty, whose school has a counselor that’s trained to look for signs of sexual abuse and who doesn’t.


In the past six years alone, Americans have witnessed the following events:

January 2011: Eighteen people, including Rep. Gabby Giffords, were shot at a grocery store parking lot near Tucson, Arizona. Six people died, including an nine-year-old girl. Giffords survived being shot in the head, but remains paralyzed on much of the right side of her body. She also had to learn how to speak again, and can now only speak in short sentences.


February 2012: George Zimmerman, 28, shot and killed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin as the black teenager returned from a convenience store. Zimmerman, the neighborhood watch coordinator in his gated community, called the police non-emergency number to say that Martin “looks like he’s up to no good, or he’s on drugs or something.” He added, “These assholes, they always get away.” The dispatcher told Zimmerman he didn’t need to follow Martin, but Zimmerman continued to pursue him, eventually wrestling Martin to the ground and fatally shooting him in the chest. In July 2013, a Florida jury found Zimmerman not guilty, and three years after Martin’s death, the Department of Justice announced there was “not enough evidence for a federal hate crime prosecution.”

July 2012: James Holmes killed 12 people and injured 70 others at a midnight screening of The Dark Knight Rises in Aurora, Colorado. While in the theater, Holmes listened to techno music through headphones so he wouldn’t hear people’s reactions.


August 2012: White supremacist Wade Michael Page fatally shot six people and wounded four others at a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin. He then killed himself. A friend of Page’s said he had spoken of an impending “racial holy war.”

December 2012: Jacob Tyler Roberts, 22, opened fire at the Clackamas Town Center outside of Portland, Oregon. Two people were killed, and a third person was injured.


December 2012: Adam Lanza, 20, walked into Sandy Hook Elementary School with and fatally shot 26 people, including 20 children between the ages of six and seven. His motive appeared to be a toxic combination of mental illness, alienation, resentment, and a perverse desire to be famous.

April 2013: Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, 19, and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, 26, detonated two homemade bombs near the Boston Marathon finish line, killing three people and injuring 264. Tamerlan Tsarnaev was killed during the subsequent police chase. In 2015, a federal jury sentenced Dzhokhar Tsarnaev to death, but the appeals process could last many years.


May 2014: Elliot Rodger, 22, stabbed three men in his apartment in Isla Vista, California, including his two roommates, who were Asian-American. He then drove to a sorority house, where he shot three female students and killed two. Before going on the killing spree, Rodger wrote a 107,000-word manifesto about the “cruelness of women,” whom he blamed for his virginity.

Rodger, who was half-Asian, wrote about the rage he felt toward another Asian man at a college party:

I came across this Asian guy who was talking to a white girl. The sight of that filled me with rage. I always felt as if white girls thought less of me because I was half-Asian, but then I see this white girl at the party talking to a full-blooded Asian. I never had that kind of attention from a white girl! And white girls are the only girls I’m attracted to, especially the blondes. How could an ugly Asian attract the attention of a white girl, while a beautiful Eurasian like myself never had any attention from them?


Rodger killed six people and injured 14 before killing himself.

July 2014: New York City police stopped Eric Garner, a 43-year-old black man, on the sidewalk, and accused him of selling loose cigarettes. NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo put Garner in a chokehold. Garner said “I can’t breathe” eleven times before he died. A grand jury decided not to indict Pantaleo, and he settled with the Garner family out of court.


August 2014: White police officer Darren Wilson, 28, fatally shot 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. Wilson and Brown wrestled over Wilson’s handgun through his car window, and when Wilson regained control, he fired 12 bullets at Brown. After huge public outcry over the shooting, the St. Louis County grand jury decided not to indict Wilson, and he later resigned from the Ferguson police department.

November 2014: White Cleveland police officer Timothy Loehmann, 26, shot and killed black 12-year-old Tamir Rice, who was playing with a toy gun on a playground. Loehmann, who shot Rice within two seconds of arriving on the scene, was fired two-and-a-half years after the boy’s death.


February 2015: White 46-year-old Craig Stephen Hicks fatally shot three Muslim-American students in Chapel Hill, North Carolina in their apartment. One of the victims, 23-year-old dentistry student Deah Barakat, had been raising money for a trip to give Syrian refugees dental care. Local authorities said the crime was “not part of a targeted campaign against Muslims in North Carolina,” but merely the result of “an ongoing neighbor dispute over parking.”

April 2015: White North Charleston police officer Michael Slager shot and killed Walter Scott, an unarmed black man, after stopping Scott for having a broken brake light. Eyewitness video showed Scott running away from the officer when he was shot.


April 2015: Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old black man, died while in police custody in Baltimore. Police officers had arrested Gray for having a knife in his pocket. While waiting for a van to take him to the police station, Gray sustained “catastrophic damage to his spine and was not breathing.” Gray’s death was ruled a homicide, and a grand jury indicted the six police officers involved with Gray’s death on assault and homicide charges.

June 2015: White supremacist Dylann Roof, 21, walked into a black church in Charleston and killed nine congregants, including the church’s pastor. “You rape our women and are taking over the country,” Roof said before opening fire.


July 2015: Texas state trooper Brian Encinia pulled over Sandra Bland, 28, for failing to use a turn signal. The stop should have ended with a fine, if anything, and Encinia allowing Bland to drive away. Instead, Encinia ordered Bland to put out her cigarette, and threatened to forcibly remove her from her car when she refused. Encinia arrested Bland for assaulting a police officer, and three days later, she was found hanging in her jail cell, from a noose made from her bedsheets.

November 2015: Robert Lewis Dear, Jr., attacked a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs, killing three people and injuring nine. Dear called himself “a warrior for the babies.” A judge found Dear incompetent to stand trial, and the case could take years to be decided.


December 2015: Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik opened fire on a Christmas meeting of public health workers at Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino, California, killing 14 people and injured 22. Inland Regional Center houses adults with developmental disabilities. Police shot and killed Farook and Malik as they fled the scene.

June 2016: Omar Mateen, 29, killed 49 people and injured 58 others at Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida. On the night of the shooting, Pulse was hosting a Latin Night, and the majority of the victims were Hispanic. The Pulse shooting was the deadliest single attack on LGBT Americans, and the deadliest terror attack in the United States since 9/11.


July 2016: During a traffic stop in a suburb of St. Paul, Minnesota, police officer Jeronimo Yanez shot and killed Philando Castile. Castile informed the officers that he was carrying a weapon in his pants pocket, and when reached for his drivers’ license, Yanez shot Castile seven times. Castile’s girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, was sitting in the passenger seat, and live-streamed the aftermath of the shooting on Facebook. Castile’s four-year-old daughter was sitting in the back seat when Castile was killed.

February 2017: Adam Purinton, 52, shot two Indian-American men in Olathe, Kansas, killing one of them. Before the attack, Purinton, a white man, yelled “get out of my country” and called the men “terrorists.” On June 9, a grand jury indicted Purinton on two federal hate crime charges, and may face the death penalty.


May 2017: Bowie State University student Richard Collins III, 23, was waiting for an Uber when 22-year-old University of Maryland student Sean Christopher Urbanski approached him and stabbed Collins to death. The police said the attack was “totally unprovoked.” Collins, an ROTC member, was set to graduate that week. Urbanski was a member of a now-defunct white supremacist Facebook group called “Alt-Reich Nation.” The FBI is investigating whether the killing was a hate crime.

May 2017: White supremacist Jeremy Christian stabbed two men to death and severely injured another man on a Portland MAX train, after the men came to the aid of two teenage Muslim girls who Christian had been yelling at. Before he died, 23-year-old Taliesin Myrddin Namkai-Meche said, “Tell everyone on this train I love them.” According to eyewitness accounts, Christian had made anti-Muslim slurs and yelling that “colored people were ruining the city.”


October 2017: Stephen Paddock, 64, used an automatic rifle to open fire on a crowd of concert-goers in Las Vegas from his hotel room at the Mandalay Bay resort and casino. The attendees were gathered to watch country singer Jason Aldean perform at the Route 91 Harvest Festival, across the street from Mandalay Bay. At least 58 people were killed, and more than 500 were injured, making it one of the deadliest mass shootings in modern U.S. history. “It just kept coming,” concert-goer Robyn Webb told the Las Vegas Review-Journal. “It was relentless.”

(This list does not include the political violence committed in the name of U.S. national security abroad. The Obama administration dropped at least 26,171 bombs in 2016 alone, and the Trump administration continues to fund Saudi Arabia’s genocidal campaign in Yemen.)


Just because violent acts are directed at non-politicians doesn’t make them apolitical. Killings in the name of white supremacy are, by definition, political. Killings in the name of male supremacy over women are political. Killings in the name of homophobia are political. And killing in the name of American global supremacy is political. Such violent acts may be deemed just or unjust, but you cannot separate politics from hate—hate, and especially violent hate, is a fundamentally political act.


A congressman getting shot is an obvious, visceral example of political violence. It is an event that merits reflection and discussion. But there is another level of violence that those in power tend to ignore: The structural, often invisible violence of the state against our nation’s least fortunate. You can see it in the housing crisis, in the draconian cuts to welfare programs, and, yes, in Republicans’ plan to take away health care from one in 14 Americans.

Scalise’s home state of Louisiana has one of the highest rates of poor health in the country:

Residents of the state, which has the nation’s fourth-lowest life expectancy, live nearly six years less on average than residents of the healthiest states, according to federal data. And Louisiana had among the highest uninsured rates.


Scalise once reportedly described himself “David Duke without the baggage.” Duke is the former Imperial Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. I bring this up not to condone what happened to him, but to show that Scalise was a participant in this violence—as all Americans (all humans) are, in ways large and small—before he became a victim of it.

We will never know how many deaths the KKK was responsible for, but one recent report found that nearly 4,000 African-Americans in Southern states were lynched between 1877 and 1950.


Violence isn’t a collection of pinpoints on a map. It’s the map itself.

Update, October 2, 2017: This story has been updated to include the mass shooting that took place in Las Vegas on October 1.

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About the author

Emma Roller

Senior politics reporter at Splinter.