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OpinionColumnistsCathy Young

The rising threat of political violence

The family of T.J. McNichols mourns at a

The family of T.J. McNichols mourns at a makeshift memorial in front of the Hole in the Wall bar near the place where McNichols was killed by mass shooter Connor Betts last week in Dayton, Ohio. Credit: The Washington Post/Jahi Chikwendiu

The horror of two mass shootings within a day — in El Paso, Texas, on Aug. 3, then in Dayton, Ohio, shortly after midnight on Aug. 4 — has given way to political finger-pointing.

The revelation that the El Paso suspect, 21-year-old Patrick Cruisius, had posted a racist screed about defending America from immigrant invaders led many to blame anti-immigrant rhetoric from President Donald Trump and his supporters. Then, commentators on the right tried to turn the tables by pointing out that the Dayton shooter, 24-year-old Connor Betts — killed by police about 30 seconds into his shooting spree — was a fan of Sen. Elizabeth Warren and a supporter of far-left antifa activism. If Trump is to blame for El Paso, they say, then Democrats should be blamed for Dayton.

To some extent, this equation is a crude and self-serving tactic to exonerate Trump. The Dayton shooting, unlike the one in El Paso, was not explicit terrorism. Betts, who had a history of troubled behavior, left no manifesto and did not target a specific group the way Cruisius allegedly targeted Mexican-Americans and Mexicans nationals; he fired into the crowd outside a popular bar. (The victims included his sister and a male friend.)

Nonetheless, the rush by mainstream commentators to declare that the Dayton shooting was unrelated to the gunman’s left-wing views is premature.

Exploring right-wing anti-immigration rhetoric as an influence in the El Paso shooting is legitimate. The suspect’s manifesto focused on immigration as “invasion” and demographic “replacement.” These themes have been prominent in the commentary of pundits like Fox News stars Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham. Trump repeatedly has talked of invasion; at a rally in May, he responded with friendly banter to a suggestion to shoot border-crossers.

It’s not racist or fascist to oppose illegal immigration. But such talk is irresponsible — especially from the president.

Nothing said by Warren or other mainstream Democrats comes close to encouraging deadly violence. But the increasingly visible far-left fringes of the “resistance” are another matter.

While it’s unknown whether Betts had ties to antifa, his Twitter trail shows he was a passionate supporter of such activism. (The account was deactivated after the shooting, but screenshots and archives remain.) In recent months, he seemed increasingly preoccupied with armed struggle and violence against “Nazis” and “fascists” — terms antifa defines broadly enough to include most people on the right — as well as wealthy people.

In March, Betts shared a tweet linking to an article suggesting Trump might refuse to leave office if impeached or voted out, adding the comment, “Aim, train, prepare.” In April, he retweeted a tweet by an antifa activist praising “armed community self-defense” (a highly flexible term). On May 23, he linked to a thread about an upcoming Ku Klux Klan rally in Dayton and alleged police ties to white supremacists, commenting, “This is why we protect ourselves, and why we dont rely on cops.” Two days later, Betts went to the KKK rally as an armed counterprotester, carrying what may have been the same gun he used in the shooting.

Obviously, Betts’s horrific act did not target Nazis or even capitalists. But is it possible that praise for political violence on left-wing Twitter helped unleash his violent impulses, or that he somehow believed his act would help precipitate revolution?

The FBI is looking into violent ideologies as a possible factor in the Dayton shooting. Whatever the outcome, it’s time to stop condoning dehumanizing and violent political rhetoric — on the right or the left.

 Cathy Young is a contributing editor to Reason magazine.