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Opinion | It is time for bipartisan de-escalation of political violence

Nevertheless, he now tells Axios: “There is, unfortunately, I think, a heightened risk of civil unrest in the period between voting and a result being called. … I think we need to be doing everything that we can to reduce the chances of violence or civil unrest in the wake of this election.”

What might that be? Zuckerberg warns that both social and traditional media must begin informing Americans that an election is legitimate even if it takes “additional days or even weeks to make sure that all of the votes are counted.” He promised:

We will attach an informational label to content that seeks to delegitimize the outcome of the election or discuss the legitimacy of voting methods, for example, by claiming that lawful methods of voting will lead to fraud. If any candidate or campaign tries to declare victory before the final results are in, we’ll add a label to their posts directing people to the official results from Reuters and the National Election Pool.

That is something to be grateful for, but of course entirely insufficient.

Let’s back up a moment. We are experiencing political violence right now in the form of continued police killings of unarmed Black Americans, acts of violence committed by right-wing groups such as Boogaloo Bois (two of its members were arrested Friday for “allegedly conspiring and attempting to become ‘assets’ to a foreign terrorist organization,” namely Hamas) and the appearance of White militia groups whose members have attacked protesters. Kyle Rittenhouse, who appeared to join such activity and has been a fan of the Blue Lives Matter movement, was charged with killing of two people in Kenosha, Wis. (Separately, two members of Blue Lives Matter were arrested with illegal possession of a haul of weapons outside Kenosha.) It should be of extreme concern that President Trump added to conspiracy theorists’ mound of disinformation by spreading a bizarre and unsubstantiated account of ninja-like figures on a plane and, even worse, offering a self-defense argument on behalf of Rittenhouse. He has cheered the actions of White militia members, who have been the source of much of the violence.

In short, we currently have an inferno of political violence to which the president of the United States adds fuel. He further foments violence by gassing of peaceful protesters in Lafayette Square and deploying unmarked law enforcement officers to Portland, Ore., who pull people off the street and shove therm into vehicles without probable cause.

We know that over 90 percent of demonstrations this summer were peaceful. But Trump’s campaign ads using these images (and even images from incidents outside the United States) as evidence of “Biden’s America” — coupled with the media’s insatiable appetite for violent scenes — give the impression of coast-to-coast conflagrations.

Normally, one would implore party leaders to speak up to restrain violent radicals on their own side, but so far the right has contributed to the problem by amplifying Trump’s divisive rhetoric. Right-wing media use their bullhorns to reach even more people.

As difficult as it may be, it is time for bipartisan voices, local and state leaders, police and other first responders, civic and religious leaders, and all responsible media outlets to try to quench the flames of violence. Both parties must denounce all violence and sanction their own when, for example, a candidate such as QAnon follower and Republican House candidate Marjorie Taylor Greene poses with a gun alongside images of the “Squad.” (We could certainly use conservative voices such as Rep. Liz Cheney’s (R-Wyo.) to denounce such conduct.)

TV news producers should carefully reconsider airing and re-airing the same limited scenes of violence that give the false impression of a far wider problem. Headline writers need to proceed with caution and precision rather than run with “City on fire!” or other exaggerated descriptions of limited incidents. Voters and the media must press candidates and officials to denounce all forms of violence. Zuckerberg and other tech leaders need to restrict video posting of violent live events (much as they do with foreign terrorist incidents or ordinary criminal activity).

A few caveats are in order. None of this is to meant to criticize or impede peaceful demonstration. To the contrary, in D.C. thousands of protesters came to commemorate the March on Washington with no reported violent activities. That should be heralded by all political players and law enforcement as upholding the best democratic traditions of this country. Second, every public official, elected or otherwise, at any level of government, who incites violence should be condemned and urged to retract such statements. Appointed officials and civil servants (from local sheriffs to Cabinet officials) who incite or excuse violence need to be removed immediately. Third, religious groups have a critical role to play. The effectiveness of days of prayer and peaceful vigils should not be discounted.

In sum, we stand on the precipice of a collapse of political norms and the unleashing of violent forces that neither party will be able to control. We fear this election will deviate from the tradition of peaceful transfer of power. It behooves all of us to insist that activists pull back from the edge, take a deep breath and commit to peaceful and civil conduct. It’s frightful that such a rudimentary commitment to peaceful self-governance is necessary, but then again, it is 2020.

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