Paul Pelosi’s attack underscores an era of heightened political violence

Friday’s brutal attack on the Speaker’s husband, Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), shocked Congress and the country, taking the nation’s attention away from the upcoming midterm elections — if only briefly — and putting it squarely on the contagion of political violence that has increased dramatically in last years.

Paul Pelosi, a wealthy investor from San Francisco, is a power broker in his own right. But a source briefed on the standoff told The Hill that the gunman who broke into Pelosi’s San Francisco home yelled “Where’s Nancy? Where’s Nancy?”

The suspect then struck Paul Pelosi with a hammer, according to San Francisco’s police chief, sending the 82-year-old to the hospital, where the speaker’s office said he is expected to make a full recovery after successfully undergoing surgery to repair a fractured skull and severe injuries to right hand and palms.

The brutal attack marks just the latest in a long series of violent episodes — some physical confrontations, some threats from a distance — targeting members of Congress and other government figures, ranging from Supreme Court justices embroiled in controversial rulings to busted local school board members in the turbulent culture wars.

The attack also added new fuel to the smoldering debate about the real-world consequences of violent political speech and raised new questions about the current levels of security for members of Congress and their families — two topics that have drawn extreme attention since last year’s violent mob attack on the U.S. Capitol.

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

“The number of threats has increased dramatically, and it seems that the climate just keeps getting worse.”

The hard numbers back up Ramsey’s concerns.

The US Capitol Police Department opened approximately 1,820 cases involving 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 “apples-to-apples comparisons from year to year.”

But if this year follows the same trend as the past half-decade, the annual number of cases involving threats and statements directed at lawmakers is likely to exceed that of 2021, when 9,625 investigations were opened.

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

The rise is accompanied by some changes. Over the summer, the Office of the Sergeant Major of the House said it was establishing a housing security program it would allocate up to $10,000 for security system equipment and installation costs at House members’ personal residences.

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

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

“It’s really a huge problem,” Ramsay said. “And I think part of that decision will allow members to use federal funds for private security if they need or want to.”

Violence has affected members of both parties over the years. Then-Pres. Gabby Giffords (D-Ariz.) was shot at 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 at a baseball field in Virginia in 2017. Both almost died.

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

“The fear and hatred that divides us, turning us against each other in this country, is a real and present danger to our democracy,” Congresswoman Debbie Dingle (D-Mich.) told CNN on Friday.

“And it’s not just targeting Democrats, it’s targeting Republicans, Democrats, the far right, the far left and local officials,” she continued. “School board members wear bulletproof vests to meetings. This is a real danger and it must stop.”

Speaker Pelosi is used to being singled out for her policies. The longtime Democratic leader has come under fire for decades from Republicans seeking to align vulnerable Democrats from various districts with their liberal leader from San Francisco, especially on contentious partisan issues such as ObamaCare and climate change.

In recent years, however, the nature of these attacks has taken a sharp turn, according to new analysis by The New York Timeswhich examined millions of social media posts, campaign emails and other communications promoted by members of both parties.

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

This shift in tone, critics warn, has consequences.

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

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

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

Rep. Adam Kinzinger (Illinois), one of two Republicans on the investigative committee on Jan. 6, 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 rig elections, drink the blood of babies, etc., you will get violence.” Kinzinger tweeted. “This should be rejected. That is why the January 6 commission is so important.”

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