A civilized society uses persuasion and argument to make a case and will not tolerate those who engage in violence toward opponents on the other side of the political aisle.

But what if we are at the precipice of losing this hallmark of civility?

Recent developments should trouble the heart of anyone who loves liberty.

Middlebury College

Consider the violent protest against Charles Murray at Middlebury College in March, a protest that not only shut down an important conversation but also sent professor Allison Stranger to the hospital. “Absent an adequate disciplinary response,” Murray wrote later, “I fear that the Middlebury episode could become an inflection point.”

The school has now responded, and the punishment is minimal. No one was suspended. No one was expelled. No one will be held accountable for a physical attack that left a professor with a concussion and a neck brace.

Murray is rightly concerned not only about the protest, but by the chill of silence it will send through other students:

“The people in the audience who wanted to hear me speak were completely cowed. That cannot be allowed to stand. A campus where a majority of students are fearful to speak openly because they know a minority will jump on them is no longer an intellectually free campus in any meaningful sense.”

Many people on the Right, witnessing the rise of campus protests and their descent into physical intimidation, lended their voices to the outcry against “liberal intolerance,” focusing their sights on freedom of speech and freedom of association. They despise the idea that a person’s political perspective might mean they deserve some sort of violent shutdown.

Congressman Gianforte

But then came Montana congressional candidate Greg Gianforte, a Republican, who on the eve of his election, body-slammed a reporter from The Guardian in front of multiple witnesses.

Many of the same voices that were (rightly) appalled at the violence on university campuses justified Gianforte’s actions. Laura Ingraham joked, “Did anyone get his lunch money stolen today and then run to tell the recess monitor?” Others claimed that The Guardian reporter was hostile in his coverage of Gianforte and so, the guy had it coming to him.

Weeks later, critics of Rep. Steve Scalise (who was shot at a baseball practice and remains in critical condition) pointed to his voting record on gun control and same-sex marriage, as if to imply something along the lines of: We’re sorry he got shot, but . . .  look at his votes! There should be no “but” there at all. One’s voting record is irrelevant in a society where we do not shoot people we disagree with.

It is frightening to see people from both the right and the left change their tunes when politically expedient and defend the use of physical violence against one’s political opponent. Ian Tuttle of National Review is right:

The ever-present temptation to dehumanize and to dominate is especially strong when traditional means of recourse appear to break down, as many on the left and right would agree has happened recently. But the response should be to redouble our efforts to repair those mechanisms, not to destroy them altogether. Without an alternative for securing the dignity of individuals against infringement, the latter is a quick route to a political order held together by nothing more than brute force.

Tuttle is right. And a political order held together by brute force can come about, even in civilized societies who believe they’ve risen above such tyrannical impulses.

Hitler’s Berlin

I recently read In the Garden of Beasts, by Erik Larson, which tells the story of the American ambassador and his family in Berlin in the 1930s, as Hitler solidified his power throughout Germany. During this period of time, attacks against Jewish people intensified, and so did multiple attacks against Americans whenever they failed to give the Hitler salute.

The chilling side of Larson’s account is in the good-intentioned, ordinary people who justified the increasing violence taking place in their midst. Most of them were not cowed into silence or afraid to oppose the new regime. Instead, they longed to be part of their country’s progress, to fit in with their neighbors. And so, they reinterpreted these events and believed that the only people who were beaten in the streets were politically aberrant and thus merited their punishment.

Chairman Mao’s China 

Similar things took place in Chairman Mao’s China. God Is Red by Liao Yiwu demonstrates how common people turned in Christian neighbors and former friends. When one priest had his tongue slashed to keep him from preaching, former church members went on stage to denounce the man’s crimes and appeal to his execution instead of “rehabilitation.”

Soldiers raised Father into the air so everyone could see him. The crowd roared. They raised their fists high and shouted, but all I could hear were the words “Down with . . . ,” “Smash . . . ,” and “Long live Chairman Mao.” There was a popular saying at that time: “When the revolutionary masses rejoice, counterrevolutionaries collapse.”

Fragile Freedom

Thank God we are nowhere near that kind of scenario here in the United States. I would be the last to compare our recent political violence with Nazi fascism or Communist tyranny.

But I mention these examples because they took place in advanced, civilized nations where such violence would have, at one time, been considered unthinkable. Citizens overlooked the small but growing number of signs that led to these disasters. For this reason, we must recognize the seriousness of this present moment.

The idea that violence is the way to “beat some sense into someone” is a mark of tyranny, not freedom. Whenever you see it, whether advocated by people on the Right or the Left, you must call it out and resist it openly and urgently. There is no room for partisanship on this question; it is every American’s patriotic duty to oppose any justification for violence against one’s political opponent.

If Murray is correct that we have reached an inflection point, then we should do whatever we can to strengthen the pillars of our civilization. Freedom is a fragile thread that can unravel faster than any of us think.