Department of Whataboutery
Plus: the Kavanaugh plot
Image: ARP Films
The January 6 congressional hearings, which have been absolutely devastating to anyone inclined to minimize either the assault on Capitol Hill or Donald Trump’s role, have naturally generated higher-than-average levels of “Yes, it was bad, but what about…” discourse.
One particularly egregious example of this discourse comes from conservative Washington Post columnist Jason Willick.
A major objective of the House committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, assault on Congress is to prevent a repeat. But even as the committee pounds away at last year’s events in new televised hearings, the “next” Jan. 6 is already in progress. This time, the mob is from the left, and the targeted institution is the Supreme Court as it resolves high-profile cases on abortion and guns.
The similarities, Willick asserts, are extensive: Claims of an illegitimate stolen election, claims of an illegitimate Supreme Court with two stolen seats. Intent to disrupt election certification by pressuring Congress, intent to disrupt Supreme Court rulings by pressuring justices. Incitement of mob action on one side, incitement of mob action on the other.
Well, minus the “violent mob” part.
Look, I have plenty of criticisms of the Supreme Court backlash on the left. I think rhetoric about an “illegitimate” court, particularly from elected political leaders such as Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) is irresponsible and dangerous, regardless of what one thinks of the Republican gambit to get the Scalia and Ginsburg vacancies. I think the protests outside the justices’ homes smack of harassment, and President Biden shouldn’t have signaled approval of those tactics. I think Ruth Sent Us, in particular, is a bad group that does bad things—e.g., publicizing justices’ home addresses and highlighting the school attended by Amy Coney Barrett’s children—and their Twitter taunts in response to the reported assassination plot against Brett Kavanaugh have been in particularly terrible taste. (No, Ruth didn’t send you, and stop misusing her name.)
None of the protests have been violent. And Sen. Markey, for all his intemperate language, was urging court-packing—also a terrible idea, but quantitatively different from mob action. The closest Willick can find to incitement by a high-level Democrat to parallel Trump’s January 6 speech to the crowd of his supporters is a speech by Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) in … March 2020.
In his infamous Jan. 6 speech at the Ellipse, Trump menaced Congress and directed his supporters to march on the Capitol. In then-Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer’s March 2020 speech to a progressive crowd in front of the Supreme Court, the New York Democrat was even more explicitly threatening: “I want to tell you, Gorsuch. I want to tell you, Kavanaugh. You have released the whirlwind, and you will pay the price. You won’t know what hit you if you go forward with these awful decisions.”
Leaving aside the fact that Schumer said it more than two years ago and that the progressive crowd didn’t go on to storm and rampage through the Supreme Court building, Willick leaves out the fact that Schumer’s speech was widely criticized at the time, not only by Republicans but some liberal media figures, including CNN’s Chris Cuomo, and that Schumer himself walked it back the next day, acknowledging that he should not have used such language. He claimed that he was referring to the “political price” Republicans would pay for putting Kavanaugh and Gorsuch on the court.
Again: you can criticize Democratic and progressive tactics with regard to the Supreme Court. But this is not “the next January 6.” It’s not even close.
The Kavanaugh Plot
That said: there is, of course, the genuinely disturbing news of a man plotting the murder of Justice Kavanaugh. John Nicholas Roske, 26, traveled to Maryland from his home in Simi Valley, California, apparently with the intent of killing Kavanaugh because he was upset by his presumed forthcoming rulings on Roe v. Wade and gun rights cases.
He was carrying a pistol, two magazines, zip ties, duct tape and burglary tools in his backpack. After arriving at Kavanaugh’s home in a cab, Roske saw two federal marshals outside. He then walked away and called 911 to give himself up, saying that he had come from California to kill a Supreme Court Justice. Roske was arrested without incident.
A number of conservatives have argued that, for an assassination plot against a Supreme Court justice, this story has gotten shockingly little attention. It’s not just the professional “Lamestream Media” grievance-mongers making this claim; here is, for instance, Arc Digital editor-in-chief Berny Belvedere.
Let’s leave aside the inevitable January 6 whataboutery. Is this an example of media bias?
One complication is that the assassination plan resulted in no actual violence, not even an attempted attack. Roske wasn’t, for instance, apprehended while trying to break into the Kavanaugh home. The fact that he so easily gave up and called the police—and described himself as mentally ill and suicidal—makes this incident sound more like the proverbial “cry for help” than an actual attempted assassination. There was also no organized plot involving other confederates.
How much coverage is enough is always a tricky question. Nonetheless, the fact that the Roske arrest quickly disappeared from the front pages—and never got front-page coverage in the New York Times, only a front-page blurb for a story inside—feels “off.”
Some people have tried to rebut this claim by pointing out that last year, a disgruntled lawyer named Roy Den Hollander who targeted federal judge Esther Salas, killing her son and wounding her husband, also turned out to be in possession of a dossier on Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor. But Hollander committed suicide after his attack on Salas’s family members, so whatever his intent toward Sotomayor, he never made any actual attempt to pursue those plans. Roske, despite his mental illness and his call to the police, took some pretty serious steps to carry out his assassination plan—and might have carried it out if Kavanaugh’s home had not been under the protections of federal marshals.
“What if it had been Sonya Sotomayor” is usually a cheap rhetorical stunt. But maybe the question is worth asking in this case. Is the coverage somewhat skewed, perhaps unconsciously, by the fact that many journalists and opinion makers see Kavanaugh as, well, one of the baddies? Such a thought does come to mind when you see things like this tweet from screenwriter Robert Schooley, which ostensibly condemns violence directed at Kavanaugh and his family but also implies some sort of moral equivalency with Kavanaugh’s own actions as (supposedly) a perpetrator of aggression against American families.
The media’s conduct aside, what seems eminently justified is the criticism of President Biden’s silence on Roske’s arrest. While Attorney General Merrick Garland has condemned all violence against Supreme Court justices and noted the need to step up security, Biden has said nothing so far.
Yet surely such an event merits a comment from the President. Even if Kavanaugh’s life was in no actual danger, the fact that a man traveled across the country and arrived outside the home of a Supreme Court justice, armed, with the intent of assassinating him in order to prevent certain Supreme Court rulings is a pretty big deal. And while Roske is mentally ill, it’s not a stretch to say that he was influenced by the overwrought rhetoric surrounding the Supreme Court. It’s certainly a reminder that our polarized and hyper-charged political climate is dangerous.
No, this isn’t another January 6, either. But Biden does need to speak on this disturbing incident and strongly condemn both political violence and attempts to minimize or trivialize it—across the board.