The ambient violence is familiar enough that people make light of it. Witness the reaction to two incidents this week on Capitol Hill: The threatened fistfight between Oklahoma Sen. Markwayne Mullin and Teamsters President Sean O’Brien, and the allegation by GOP Rep. Tim Burchett that he’d been intentionally elbowed in the kidney by former House Speaker Kevin McCarthy.
Quite understandably, people laughed at the comic displays of macho by grown men who ought to know better. We spent less time remarking on how shocking it ought to be.
The emotions of a long-targeted demographic reeling from a mass killing are surely different from those of media figures dealing with online vitriol, much less those of spectators in a Capitol hearing room watching a Senator and a union chief act like barroom goons. But they all feed on each other, boosting a sense of looming chaos — a chaos that, should it arrive, is just the sort of atmosphere where folks grab weapons and target an out-group.
And in all of these disparate cases, it’s also worth asking: What does this 21st-century climate do to us as a community?
More people in Washington now feel a sense of physical danger from the politics or geopolitics that power the city’s elite. Folks who a couple decades ago enjoyed a privileged feeling of safety are apt today to have a small part of themselves that worries about their own security in the face of international terrorism, domestic extremism, internet-fueled conspiracists, legislative rivals willing to literally elbow your kidney.
You could say it’s poetic justice — that it’s about time permanent-Washington types feel the vulnerability that’s familiar to people who aren’t from an elite or a superpower. But that’s a silly argument if your goal is a better, more decent capital. Does physical fear make us more wise, more generous, more inclined to seek understanding? The sense that the rules have shifted can’t but alter the way so many of us move about the world. For better and occasionally for worse, Washington used to be a place where everyone got to be a civilian after hours.
The gradual loss of that quality represents a cultural change that we’ll be grappling with for years.
In a way, we all need to do on a mental level what the head of the Bender Jewish Community Center in nearby Rockville told me he is trying to do on an institutional one. “We recognize that our community is a welcoming place,” said Josh Bender, the organization’s CEO. “We need a sense of safety and security but also of warmth and welcoming, and they don’t always fit together perfectly.”
Troy, for his part, won’t specify if he’ll wind up with a weapon — he said he prefers “strategic ambiguity” about his status. But in his mind, getting armed is a bulwark against barbarism and all that comes with it. “When you descend into barbarism, you need some way to defend yourself and your family,” he said. As for the neighbors showing a new interest in weapons, “I don’t know of anyone who’s interested in it for the deer.”
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