When Your President Incites Violence …
How do we handle heads-of-state who encourage crimes?
How do we hold bombastic leaders accountable for violence done in their name? It’s a question with increasing relevance as right-wing populism rises around the globe.
Matthew Heimbach, a white supremacist, has been charged with assaulting protesters at Donald Trump campaign rally in the fall of 2016, claimed he was only trying to defend Trump’s constitutional rights — and answering the presidential candidate’s command to “get them [protesters] out of here!”
Heimbach insisted he’s not responsible for the assault, but that if he were, it’s only because he “relied on Trump’s authority to order disruptive persons removed and that Trump was legally within his rights to ask other attendees to assist in defending their constitutional rights against ‘protesters’ who were disrupting.”
In simpler terms, Trump was within his rights to order protesters out of his rally and therefore his supporters were within their rights to try and force those protesters out. Heimbach’s lawyers’ legal strategy is twofold — to both deny the assault, and to simultaneously justify the violence by investing it with someone else’s authority.
Meanwhile, a Philippine lawyer named Jude Sabio has filed a lawsuit against Pres. Rodrigo Duterte for mass murder over the course of three decades. It alleges that Duterte and 11 other officials are responsible for thousands of extrajudicial killings committed against people they deemed to be drug dealers. While Duterte was mayor of Davao City in Mindanao, he vocally supported a notorious local death squad.
The killings are part of The Philippines’ bloody war on drugs. Human Rights Watch reported that 6,000 people, mainly slum dwellers, have died in the war. 2,250 were killed by police. Another 3,600 were killed by “unidentified gunmen.” Some of the victims were as young as 14.
Duterte ran as a law-and-order candidate, pledging to eradicate drug crime in The Philippines. His plan centers on vilifying drug dealers and drug users and openly advocating their murder. Before taking office, Duterte encouraged members of the public to feel free to kill “criminals.”
“You have my support,” Duterte said. “Shoot him [a drug dealer] and I’ll give you a medal.”
The violence Duterte is encouraging is obviously more severe than what Trump called for during his campaign, but the parallels are clear. Trump offered to pay the legal fees of any of his supporters who were charged for attacking protesters. He has since retracted that offer, but as Heimbach’s case makes clear, his offer did embolden his supporters.
In a move worthy of Joseph McCarthy, Duterte boasted of a list he claimed included the names of up to one million “suspects” who he said were involved in the drug trade. He said a further three million Filipinos were drug addicts — and that he’d be happy to kill them, as well.
Using this purported list, Duterte has designated people from all walks of life as, essentially, legitimate targets of police investigation and extrajudicial killing.
The Trump administration is like a quieter echo of some of the worst aspects of Duterte’s presidency. During the campaign and since his election, Trump has repeatedly argued that immigrants are disproportionately involved in all kinds of crime, from drug trafficking to sexual assault. He apparently see no irony in accusing others of a crime he himself has possibly committed.
Matthew Heimbach, in the red hat, allegedly assaulted the black woman in front of him
In place of Duterte’s long list of alleged drug dealers, America now has VOICE — the Victims of Immigration Crime Engagement Office. Among other things, the office aims to publish lists of crimes committed by immigrants, particularly undocumented ones.
It’s part of the Trump administration’s larger effort, guided by advisor Steve Bannon, to paint all immigrants as inherently criminal, dangerous and undesirable — and as threats to American values and security.
Duterte has explicitly labeled drug dealers and users as legitimate targets of violence, arguing that killing them makes his country safer. This essentially casts violence against these people as an expression of patriotism. Trump did the same for admittedly less-lethal violence against protesters at his rallies. And his administration has made clear that certain people, particularly immigrants and Muslims, do not belong in his America.
If you are committed to the idea of “making America great again,” and you recall your president’s boisterous advocacy of violence against protesters, what will you think is the patriotic way to respond to the undesirables allegedly invading your country?
The individual people who carry out the killings in The Philippines and the assaults in the United States are, of course, responsible for their own actions and should face justice. But given the surge in violence in both countries that has accompanied the rise of our outspoken presidents, it’s important to consider how these heads of state enable and encourage this kind of non-state violence.
Culpability is clear in cases where, for instance, Duterte has allegedly given direct orders to police to kill someone. That’s an illegal order, and both the person giving it and the person following it are guilty.
The question of accountability gets muddier when politicians say inflammatory things in public speeches that may inspire individuals to commit crimes.
In some ways, the problem is similar to the question we often face after a terror attack carried out by an apparent “lone wolf.” Whether or not someone is considered a lone wolf tends to be based in large part upon their race and real or perceived religious affiliation.
The media often code attackers who appear to be Muslim or Arab as being part of a larger network or organization, while white attackers are viewed as mere troubled individuals. In reality, the level of engagement these kinds of attackers had with a larger organization can often be quite similar.
Charleston church-shooter Dylann Roof was involved with white supremacist groups online and in person, much like people radicalized by Islamic State before carrying out their own attacks.
These attackers might not ever receive any direct orders or training from leaders in the networks they engage with. But it’s clear that their engagement with a terror network is at least partially responsible for helping build the worldview that justifies their violence.
Put another way, these attackers may always have harbored violent impulses and perhaps even a sense of resentment toward their particular target, but finding networks that validate those feelings helps to embolden them.
Donald Trump. Gage Skidmore/Flickr photo
In the case of terrorist networks — and I include white-supremacist networks in that category — it seems easy and natural to label the thought-leaders of those movements, the ones who identify target populations and argue for the necessity of violence against them, as bearing some guilt … even when they don’t themselves perpetrate violence.
In the case of our politicians, we’ve been less willing to cast blame. People will fall over themselves to defend a remark as free speech if it seems to advocate violence against an already marginalized group, while supporting efforts to silence those same marginalized people. And it is certainly true that we should be cautious thinking about legal consequences of speech.
But sometimes even actual violence on the part of a politician isn’t enough to earn them condemnation, as we saw when Montana congressional candidate Greg Gianforte assaulted a reporter … and still handily won the election.
It shouldn’t be surprising that we’re more willing to hold non-state actors accountable than we are heads of state or other politicians. The state, by its very function, holds a monopoly on the legal use of force. That has always made it more difficult to bring state leaders to justice. They wield the institutions of power. And even when they themselves no longer hold office, there is often enough camaraderie among elites to essentially exempt them from real punishment.
At the national level, the obstacles for the people to hold leaders accountable can seem almost insurmountable. On the international level, we have gradually been building institutions meant to correct this problem, but they too often fall short. The Geneva Conventions and an entire body of international humanitarian law attempt to regulate conduct in warfare in order to reduce civilian suffering and hold both leaders and soldiers accountable when they commit abuses.
International human rights law is meant to preserve those rights in war and peace, and again to hold people accountable when they violate them.
All of these efforts are necessary and good, but ultimately still lack enforceability. The treaties are voluntary. And even when states are signatories, their heads can still evade the courts. And it’s even harder when the potential crime isn’t a physical act of violence or a direct order that violates international law, but rather rhetoric that leads to violence.
Incitement is a crime in both U.S. domestic and international law. But in the United States, incitement has tended to be narrowly construed. It has to be directly tied to the actual act of violence, and has most often been leveled against activist groups and labor unions advocating revolutionary political change, not against major party candidates … and certainly not the president.
Likewise, it’s difficult to say definitely that any of Trump’s statements are what would legally constitute a true threat and not just hyperbole.
Incitement in international law tends to imply on incitement to genocide. That makes sense insofar as a lot of our current international law emerged in the aftermath of World War II.
However, as right-wing populism rises around the globe and leaders such as Trump and Duterte become ever more common, it seems increasingly important to wrestle with these questions, to determine where accountability lies for the increasing violence we suffer in our societies — and to seek justice.