TO FLOURISH in public life requires a thick skin. Senator Ted Cruz needed one this week, as chanting activists hounded the senator and his wife from dinner in a Washington restaurant. Such disruption of politicians’ meals is getting almost as common as online abuse. Ruqaiyah Morris, Vermont’s only black state legislator, has said that she is quitting after suffering too many racist, “inflammatory and at times, even dangerous” harangues. Harsh words are tolerable, reckons an ex-politician in Chicago: credible death threats, or thrown rocks and bottles, are not.
Public figures know they must sometimes brace for tough treatment. Brett Kavanaugh expected scrutiny in his bid to be a Supreme Court justice, although he has lamented that he is suffering “character assassination” and death threats. That was after two women accused him of drunken sexual assaults against them (which he denies). His accusers also knew speaking out would stir up a nasty backlash. One, Christine Blasey Ford, says she faced an onslaught of threats of murder and other “vicious harassment” within hours of her name becoming public. She and her family have fled the family home as a result.
Such intimidation of women who allege assault by the powerful is ugly, but it is not new. In 1991 Anita Hill’s reward for testifying that she was sexually harassed by Clarence Thomas, who went on to be a justice of the court, was disbelief and vile abuse. She recalled how she came home to “an answering machine full of messages” from strangers who threatened her with sodomy, rape and murder.
Last year in Alabama several women accused Roy Moore of sexual assaults during a failed run for the Senate. His supporters disparaged them, and then the home of one, Tina Johnson, burned down a few weeks later. Arson was suspected but not proved. Other women who merely campaign against images of sexual exploitation expect to face harassment. Brianna Wu and Anita Sarkeesian were vilified and threatened by some male video-game enthusiasts, a crude episode in 2014 known as Gamergate. A spokeswoman for the National Rifle Association, Dana Loesch, said last year that death threats from supporters of gun control forced her to move house.
Even if such harassment is not new, three developments do suggest incivility has changed in the years since Ms Hill’s testimony. Private individuals, as well as figures who volunteer for prominence, are targets for vile confrontations; anonymous attackers employ digital methods that scale-up fast and are hard to block; and the most senior elected official sets an abysmally low standard that others can follow.
The first of these changes is arguably the most damaging: people are attacked even when they are thrust unwillingly into the spotlight. Veronique De La Rosa and Leonard Pozner, parents of a six-year-old boy, Noah, who was murdered in a mass shooting at a school in Sandy Hook, Connecticut, in 2012, have been taunted online and threatened for years by fantasists who deny the massacre and allege the parents are “crisis actors” and part of a government conspiracy, perhaps to limit the public’s access to guns. Repeated publication of their address has forced the family to move house seven times since the murder.
To new mutiny
Survivors of another mass shooting of students in Parkland, Florida, in February have been attacked too. A conservative commentator in St Louis was forced off a television show in April after he threatened a sexual attack with a “hot poker” on David Hogg, a Parkland student who dares to say why he favours gun control. Mr Hogg’s mother has reported death threats, as have others at the school.
Second, technology makes threatening people easier. Where once angry television viewers raged only at their screens, internet-users encourage each other, contact targets and issue threats from darker corners online, such as anonymous message-board sites 4chan and 8chan. A favourite activity is doxing—publishing information, such as addresses and phone numbers, of individuals—which becomes an invitation for subsequent threats. “Swatting”, when emergency police teams are called to raid victims’ homes, has been used against Mr Hogg and politicians.
Ms Blasey Ford’s lawyers say her email has been hacked and she has been impersonated online. The broad reach of a deranged, far-right fabulist, Alex Jones of Infowars, long depended on his use of YouTube and other platforms. His broadcasts of conspiracy theories encouraged others to threaten the parents of Noah Pozner, over Sandy Hook. (Several online platforms banned him this summer.)
Third, President Donald Trump sets a remarkably unedifying example. As a candidate he called for supporters at a rally in Iowa to “knock the crap” out of protesters, one of many messages encouraging violence. As president, his repeated allegations of fake news help to whip up conspiracy theorists. He also appears to encourage those harassing the accusers of Mr Kavanaugh. In one tweet he dismissed Ms Blasey Ford for not reporting the alleged assault when she was a teenager. He disparaged a second accuser for having drunk alcohol and for memory lapses.
If all this gives the impression that politics has fallen from a state of grace, that is misleading. Despite the onslaught of death threats, Mr Trump’s tirades and online nastiness there is, so far, no obvious sign of more actual violence. Those who saw beatings, shootings and murders of civil-rights activists in the South, in the 1950s and 1960s, recall a time when speaking against the powerful could cost you not only peace of mind but also your life.