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Leave Lincoln Out of This

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Another horrific act of mass murder targeting young school children and their teachers has forced the nation into what has become a terribly routinized pattern of grief.

Even before the facts were known, this criminal act fast became an occasion for political debate—an activity that provides a sense of agency to those who, in fact, can only witness the horror and share the grief of those who experienced it. This terroristic assault is not without a policy dimension, and there have been thoughtful proposals designed to address the conditions that contributed to it. There have also been somewhat less helpful but natural expressions of passion and anguish.

There is, however, nothing less productive than the impulse to steal from the victims of this crime their heartrending experience and make it our own. That must have been the impulse that drove the editorial board of the Los Angeles Times to translate the events in Uvalde, Texas into a story about American disunion and civil war.

“Perhaps this is how it all ends—self-government, self-defense, self-control, liberty, unity, family,” the editorial began. This was not a tortured metaphor. The piece goes on to cite Abraham Lincoln’s 1838 address before the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois. “If destruction be our lot,” the 16th president famously said, “we must ourselves be its author and finisher.”

“This may be the suicide of which Lincoln spoke,” the editorial continued. “This may be why we die, not for a great cause but for a loss of love and respect for one another and the dream that bound our forebears together.”

A heightened state of emotion can only explain why this institution would see this act of gun violence, or any other similar act, or the cumulative effect of all of them, as a sign of impending civil conflict. Only fervor explains why the authors felt they had to guess at Lincoln’s intention when he wrote the passages above. After all, Lincoln was exceedingly specific about his meaning in that very speech.

“I mean the increasing disregard for law which pervades the country,” Lincoln continued, “the growing disposition to substitute the wild and furious passions, in lieu of the sober judgment of Courts; and the worse than savage mobs, for the executive ministers of justice.” He went on to describe regular acts of mob violence against blacks and anti-slavery activists, the savage display of bodies designed to intimidate spectators, and coordinated attacks on churches and newspapers—all in the name of disunion. The mob and its murderous passions are very much a threat today, though that threat is not pertinent to the events that unfolded in Texas.

What Lincoln most feared wasn’t the mob but those who would be cowed by it or cater to it. It isn’t the mob that can dissolve our common bonds, but the ambitious political actors who would take advantage of a condition in which “the best citizens” have become “alienated” from their government. “Is this where the American dream dies—not on a battlefield, but in our own homes and schools, by our own hands and the hands of our neighbors?” the LA Times asks. If Lincoln’s admonition is your loadstar, the answer is no. In his telling, the American experiment ends with general apathy—a lack of resolve to confront the will of the mob and those who would seek its favor—not the fiery passions of an engaged and civically minded citizenry.

Lincoln’s explicit remedy to lawlessness and the malicious designs of ambitious men was lawfulness. One discrete criminal act, or many, or even a boiling, violent crowd can catalyze a movement toward national Balkanization, but that is not enough to break America’s bonds. When such a moment arises and someone emerges to capitalize on it, “it will require the people to be united with each other, attached to the government and laws, and generally intelligent, to successfully frustrate his designs.”

In January 2021, we witnessed such an event. One might despair over the conditions that brought us to the brink, just as one can take solace in the number who are “attached to the government and laws” that held fast as a bulwark against lawlessness. But this has nothing whatsoever to do with Tuesday’s truly senseless act of mass murder, and there’s little evidence to suggest it will occasion national self-immolation. Not in Lincoln’s telling, at least. Because if events in Texas were going to foment national dissolution, we wouldn’t be talking about the law. The rule of law would be no more than an academic notion.

It is a bizarre impulse to try to expand the scope of the terrors the nation endures after each act of mass violence into presaging the rending of the American fabric. These events are significant enough as they are. This is no time to superimpose ourselves onto the stories of grief and horror to which we bear witness.



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