Paul Pelosi attack highlights era of heightened political violence

Friday’s brutal attack on the husband of Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) shocked Congress and the country, pulling the nation’s gaze away from the looming midterm elections — if only briefly — and placing it squarely on the plague of political violence that’s risen dramatically in recent years.

Paul Pelosi, a wealthy San Francisco investor, is a power broker in his own right. But a source briefed on the confrontation told The Hill the assailant who broke into Pelosi’s San Francisco home was shouting “Where is Nancy? Where is Nancy?”

The suspect then struck Paul Pelosi with a hammer, according to San Francisco’s chief of police, sending the 82-year-old to the hospital, where the Speaker’s office says he’s expected to make a full recovery after successfully undergoing surgery to repair a skull fracture and serious injuries to his right arm and hands.

The vicious attack marked just the latest in a long string of violent episodes — some physical altercations, some distant threats — targeting members of Congress and other government figures, ranging from justices of the Supreme Court embroiled in controversial rulings, to local school board members caught up in the stormy culture wars.

The assault has also added new fuel to the simmering debate over the real-life consequences of violent political speech and raised fresh questions about the current levels of security for members of Congress and their families — two topics that have gained outsized attention since last year’s violent mob attack on the U.S. Capitol.

“It does highlight an extreme problem that we have in this country with the political violence that’s being threatened over and over again, at all levels, whether it’s school boards [or] members of Congress,” Charles Ramsey, former chief of police in Washington, D.C., said Friday in an interview with CNN.

“The number of threats have dramatically increased, and it seems like the climate is just continuing to get worse.”

The hard numbers support Ramsey’s concerns.

The U.S. Capitol Police Department opened roughly 1,820 cases involving concerning statements and threats against lawmakers between Jan. 1 and March 23 of this year. The department said it does not anticipate releasing additional numbers until early next year to allow for “an apples to apples comparison from year to year.”

But if this year follows the same trend as the last half decade, the annual number of cases involving threats and concerning statements targeting lawmakers will likely exceed that of 2021, when 9,625 inquiries were opened.

Last year’s numbers marked a roughly 144 percent increase from cases opened in 2017, a seismic jump that occurred during the Trump administration, when divisive political rhetoric became more common across the country.

The uptick has been accompanied by some changes. Over the summer, the office of the House sergeant-at-arms said it was creating a residential security program that would allocate up to $10,000 for security system equipment and installation costs at the personal residences of House lawmakers.

And on Friday, the Capitol Police began a review of security for top lawmakers following the attack on Paul Pelosi, sources told Punchbowl News.

But the violent incident in San Francisco will likely renew calls for greater security during such a polarizing moment in American politics.

“It really is a huge problem,” said Ramsey. “And I think part of that solution is going to be allowing federal funds to be used for private security, if needed or if wanted, by members.”

The violence has touched members of both parties over the years. Then-Rep. Gabby Giffords (D-Ariz.) was shot during a district event in Tucson more than a decade ago, while Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.), the Republican whip, was similarly targeted by a lone gunman on a baseball field in Virginia in 2017. Both almost died.

More recently, in June, a man armed with a knife and gun was arrested for threatening the conservative Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh near his home in Maryland. A month later, another gun-toting man was arrested and charged with making death threats outside the Seattle home of Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), a prominent liberal figure.

“The fear and hatred that is dividing us, pitting us against each other in this country, is a real and present danger to our democracy,” Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.) told CNN Friday.

“And it isn’t Democrats that this is just targeted at, it’s targeted at Republicans, Democrats, far-right, far-left and local-level officials,” she continued. “School board members are wearing bulletproof vests to meetings. This is a real danger, and it’s got to stop.”

Speaker Pelosi is accustomed to being targeted for her politics. The long-time Democratic leader has, for decades, come under criticism from Republicans seeking to tie vulnerable swing-district Democrats to their liberal leader from San Francisco, particularly on controversial partisan issues like ObamaCare and climate change.

In recent years, however, the tenor of those attacks has taken a harsh turn, according to a new analysis by The New York Times, which examined millions of social media messages, campaign emails and other communications promoted by members of both parties.

The trend is especially pronounced among the 139 House Republicans who voted to overturn the 2020 election results, the closest allies of former President Trump, the Times found, who are more apt to characterize Democrats — particularly Pelosi — as “America-hating socialists,” in the words of one GOP lawmaker, who are hell-bent on destroying the country’s traditions.

That change in tone, the critics warn, has repercussions.

“This incident makes one thing clear: Violent political rhetoric has consequences, and unfortunately, this is not the first time we are seeing those consequences play out,” said Rep. Mike Quigley (D-Ill.), a member of the Intelligence Committee.

William Scott, San Francisco’s police chief, emphasized that the motive in Friday’s attack on Paul Pelosi “is still being determined.” But the suspect, 42-year-old David DePape, appears to have been active in the promotion of right-wing conspiracy theories across a range of hot-button topics, including COVID-19 vaccines, the 2020 election results and the investigation into the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol, according to CNN.

DePape was arrested on site and faces a series of felony charges, including attempted murder, assault with a deadly weapon and elder abuse, Scott said.

Rep. Adam Kinzinger (Ill.), one of two Republicans on the Jan. 6 investigative committee, suggested a link between the rise in heated political speech and the spike in political violence.

“I want to be clear: when you convince people that politicians are rigging elections, drink babies blood, etc, you will get violence,” Kinzinger tweeted. “This must be rejected. This is why the Jan 6th committee is so important.”

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