Footage emerged last week of masked ruffians beating a man as he writhed on the ground at Berkeley’s campus. What had he done? The goons assumed, without evidence, that he was an alt-right supporter, or at least a Trump voter.
Suppose, for the sake of argument, that he actually held extreme views. Would that have mitigated the assailants’ crime? Most of us, I hope, can see that it would make no difference. Battery is battery. I wrote in this column a few weeks back that it is a short distance from “punch a Nazi” to “shoot a Republican.” Either political violence is legitimate in a democracy, or it is not.
But let’s try a different question. What if he had himself been violent, as the two sides were in Charlottesville? That still wouldn’t justify assault; it would be for the police to punish criminal behavior on both sides.
That much should be obvious, even banal. But when Donald Trump said so, there was an explosion. The Washington Post called it “an apparent attempt to equate those vocally defending Nazism and the goals of the Confederacy in Charlottesville with those who showed up in opposition.” The New York Times claimed that “President Trump buoyed the white nationalist movement.” Republicans scrambled to distance themselves from him. Even the United Nations got in on the act, complaining that the president had failed to “unequivocally and unconditionally reject and condemn racist hate speech and crimes”.