ALBANY, N.Y. — About a month ago, after the massacre at a grocery in Buffalo, U.S. Rep. Elise Stefanik faced criticism for campaign rhetoric that was echoed in ways by the killer’s manifesto.
Well, what’s fair for the congresswoman is fair for a senator, and now it’s Charles Schumer who is facing criticism for the use of irresponsible language. The reason for the scrutiny is the alleged plot to kill Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh.
If you haven’t heard — and you may not have, given the limited media coverage — a 26-year-old was arrested early Wednesday outside Kavanaugh’s Maryland home. He was dressed in black and, according to the criminal complaint charging him with attempted murder, was allegedly carrying a semi-automatic pistol with two magazines, ammunition, pepper spray, a tactical knife, hammer, screwdriver, nail punch, crowbar, zip ties and duct tape.
The alleged would-be assassin, who had traveled to the suburban street from California, is said to have told police he was upset about the leaked Roe v. Wade decision, along with the Uvalde school shooting, and believed murdering Kavanaugh would give his life purpose.
Good God. If you needed more evidence that this country is in a dark place … well, you didn’t. The evidence is abundant.
But back to Schumer, who in a March 2020 speech outside the Supreme Court voiced what sounded like a threat against Kavanaugh and Neil Gorsuch, a second conservative on the court.
Speaking about potential abortion rulings, here’s what Schumer said: “I want to tell you, Gorsuch, I want to tell you, Kavanaugh, you have released the whirlwind and you will pay the price. You won’t know what hit you if you go forward with these awful decisions.”
You will pay the price. You won’t know what hit you.
To say such words were inappropriate from a man who would become Senate majority leader is to state the obvious. To say they were just one more example of our degraded, Trumpian discourse is to do the same.
Schumer even received well-justified rebukes from the president of the American Bar Association and from Chief Justice John Roberts.
“Justices know that criticism comes with the territory,” Roberts said, “but threatening statements of this sort from the highest levels of government are not only inappropriate, they are dangerous.”
Roberts was right, as Schumer perhaps realized. While the Democrat didn’t exactly apologize, he did concede he “should not have used the words” he’d spoken.
“I didn’t intend to suggest anything other than political and public opinion consequences for the Supreme Court, and it is a gross distortion to imply otherwise,” Schumer said. “I am from Brooklyn. I speak in strong language.”
The excuse doesn’t really pass muster, though, given that the court is largely immune from political consequences. What “whirlwind,” exactly, would cause justices with lifetime tenure “to pay the price”?
In light of the arrest near Kavanaugh’s home and the new criticism of the senator’s words, I asked Schumer’s office if he wanted to say anything more and said I was considering writing a column that would be a follow-up, of sorts, to a prior one about Stefanik, the North Country Republican.
“Of course Senator Schumer believes that violence has no place in our political process and steadfastly supports the right to peacefully protest. Full stop,” responded spokesperson Allison Biasotti in a written statement, adding that “a weak attempt to compare him to MAGA Republicans inciting violence and trying to overthrow the government just won’t work.”
How you view all this may depend on whether you like Schumer’s politics. It certainly isn’t a coincidence that nearly all the criticism of his language is coming from the political right — just as most of the criticism of Stefanik’s rhetoric, which sounded too much like the replacement theory espoused by racists, came from the left.
But as I said in the column after the Buffalo killings, it is usually a mistake to draw a straight line from the rhetoric of one person to the terrible actions of another. The people who plan and commit evil have agency. They are making a choice.
Words do matter, though, especially when spoken by elected officials at the top of the food chain. Incendiary language sets a tone that others may take as a cue. It contributes to a political climate that has grown intolerably ugly and toxic, as the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol and a would-be assassin outside the home of a Supreme Court justice make abundantly clear.
It’s noteworthy and regrettable, perhaps, that leading Democrats haven’t in recent days expressed sympathy for Kavanaugh and his family or acknowledged that the life of a fellow human being may have been at stake. Oh sure, maybe that’s naive. Maybe a little kindness is an unrealistic expectation in this divided and dangerous moment, which seemingly demands that political opponents be treated as enemies of war.
Or maybe more kindness and humanity is exactly what this moment demands.