An alarming spate of attacks, threats and harassment has targeted well-known political figures in recent months, from Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).
Below those headlines, however, are thousands of similar incidents targeting the people who make the country run: nurses, airport screeners, federal employees, poll workers, journalists, flight attendants, school officials, law enforcement officers, state and local officials, and others, experts tell Grid.
It appears the United States is a nation increasingly drawn to violence and threats of violence as acceptable responses to conflicts, large and small.
“People seem to have a really short fuse these days,” said Johnny Jones, a TSA officer at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport and representative for the TSA worker’s union. “It’s like everybody’s ready to explode on somebody.”
University of Virginia sociology professor Ian Mullins said it’s important to think of what’s shifting as “a change in the threshold of what people are willing to accept.” In other words, Americans are increasingly conditioned to accept violence as a legitimate political act.
“There’s popular discourse that condones violence and almost makes it seem like an admirable action,” said Mullins. He pointed to examples like the reemergence of militias, the “mainstreaming” of the violent right-wing Proud Boys group and militant protests outside of libraries: “They’re becoming more visible and not being condemned in a way I might expect them to be.”
The roots of the rage
While most experts Grid spoke with agreed that political tensions and hyperbole drove threats and actual violence, some cited other factors.
For one, the economic climate has added stress to many Americans’ lives, leading to quick tempers. Also, certain professions, like nursing or security, have been facing workforce shortages that may exacerbate the increase in violent events — fewer hands are available to intervene and de-escalate situations before an agitated patient or customer initiates an assault.
One major factor many had previously blamed for rising violence was Americans’ reactions to the covid pandemic and public health mandates. School closures, vaccination campaigns and mask mandates were believed to trigger a spike in violent behavior over the past couple of years.
Those pundits were only half right, it appears: Relaxing pandemic precautions seems to have reduced the frequency of targeted threats and violence for some workers, but violence and the threat of violence remain more common than ever for many, Grid found.
“It’s getting worse instead of getting better,” said Jean Ross, president of National Nurses United (NNU). “We call it an epidemic, an epidemic of violence against nurses and other healthcare workers.”
In each of three surveys conducted by NNU throughout the pandemic, nurses reported a small or significant increase in workplace violence. In early 2021, about 22 percent reported observing an increase, and a year later, nearly half of respondents reported an increase.
“People are angrier,” Ross said, “and they are tending to take it out on those of us who are trying to help them.”
Public employees bear the brunt
Local public health officials are similarly receiving awful levels of harassment, threats and violence, according to Adriane Casalotti, chief of government and public affairs at the National Association of City and County Health Officials.
“One of the things that we found over time is how unfortunately day-to-day things like death threats became,” said Casalotti. While the stories alarmed Casalotti, she said the officials were “like, ‘That’s my Tuesday death threat.’”
Though aviation personnel may be slightly safer now than at the height of the pandemic, TSA screeners face elevated threats and harassment, according to their union, and in-flight incidents are still wildly higher than the pre-covid era. The Federal Aviation Administration reports investigating 745 “unruly passenger” incidents this year to date — well above the average 136 incidents investigated each year from 2009 to 2019.
The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees says its members are reporting increases in mistreatment and threats, particularly those in public-facing roles like librarians and benefits administrators. Likewise, the Federal Protective Service (FPS), which protects federal buildings and employees, has seen a rise in response calls for violence, harassment and threats, according to the union representing FPS workers. FPS did not respond to inquiries from Grid.
Violent political rhetoric is becoming the norm
Many point to incendiary political rhetoric as a driving factor in incidents targeting prominent public officials, from Pelosi to Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., to Kavanaugh.
“You can’t ignore politics as a driver of the violence,” said Mullins, the sociology professor. The United States is intimately familiar with political violence, he noted: As recently as the 1960s and ’70s, America experienced a spate of political violence driven by the nation’s reaction to the civil rights movement and to the Vietnam War. At the time, Americans felt like they had to “pick a side,” Mullins said, and that dynamic appears to be reemerging.
“I think we’re getting to a point where people feel as if there’s no middle ground,” said Mullins.
Last month, House Oversight Committee Chairwoman Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., initiated an investigation into threats to federal workers, to look at both what’s driving them and how agencies are protecting their workers. In a statement to Grid, Maloney blamed GOP lawmakers for comments she said incited violence and threats against federal employees.
“Inflammatory statements from Republicans in Congress put government workers in grave danger,” Maloney told Grid. “It is well past time for my colleagues on the other side of the aisle to forcefully condemn inciteful words from their own ranks.”
As examples, Maloney has pointed to false claims by GOP members that the IRS was hiring thousands of armed agents to target Americans, and derogatory claims about the FBI. House GOP Leader Kevin McCarthy of California did not respond to a request for comment from Grid.
Politics, particularly right-wing actors, play an undeniable role in ramping up the societal threshold for violence, according to Mullins. “I think part of it is the conservative movement, part is the Republican Party and part of it is fringe groups who have learned how to use these online spaces to radicalize people,” he said.
The level of hate currently directed at members of minority groups is striking and lends credence to Mullins’ assertions. A 2022 survey by the Anti-Defamation League found that 58 percent of marginalized respondents had experienced “hate-based harassment,” or harassment targeting them because of their membership in a minority group. The figure was unchanged from the previous year.
Fringe groups espouse conspiracies that “dehumanize political opponents and depend on a sense of outrage,” said Mullins. Those get recycled and popularized by popular political figures, and reported on in mainstream news outlets. “It orients people toward violence in a way that in other places or at other times would be seen as wrong.”
Thanks to Lillian Barkley for copy editing this article.