Barton Gellman: The election that could break America
Similarly, this year’s vehicle-ramming attacks have created victims whom law enforcement can’t or won’t show were targeted intentionally. Violent extremism is a cause of these attacks—they wouldn’t happen without it—but America’s hands-off approach to regulating vehicles and driving provides an ongoing opportunity for them.
Of the 104 incidents that Weil analyzed this year, he was able to assess the driver’s conduct as malicious in just 43. As of late October, only 39 drivers had been charged, some of them with traffic offenses such as reckless driving, rather than the criminal charges that tend to be slapped on perpetrators of gun crimes. Another expert, J. J. MacNab at George Washington University, noted a spectrum of driver motivations, citing as a “clear-cut” example a man in his vehicle who approached protesters, revved his engine, and drove into the crowd. The alleged assailant, whom the county attorney described as “an avowed Klansman” and a “propagandist of Confederate ideology,” was charged with multiple crimes. But what happens when the perpetrator is a bit more guarded about his motivations, or law enforcement more sympathetic?
We don’t have to speculate about the answer. In May in Tulare County, California, occupants of a Jeep flying a Trump flag antagonized a Black Lives Matter protest. Protesters chanted and threw water bottles; the Jeep driver responded by striking and injuring two of them. Prosecutors not only declined to charge the driver, but blamed the protesters for standing in the road.
The Tulare prosecutors also emphasized that the car’s occupants felt they were under threat. In 2017, Republican legislators in several states proposed civil “stand your ground” laws that would largely absolve drivers from tort liability for striking protesters. After the vehicular murder that summer of Heather Heyer in Charlottesville by a white supremacist, those bills were shelved. In September of this year, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis briefly revived the debate by proposing a similar law. But even though none of these bills has been enacted, drivers who strike protesters already enjoy two layers of protection. They can claim they acted out of fear under threat, and they can also claim garden-variety inadvertence. The American system for regulating driving is already practiced at sweeping such “accidents” under the rug. This suggests a need for both stricter enforcement of vehicular-homicide laws and better vehicular regulation in general.
The general failure to regulate driving shrouds specific acts of vehicular violence, and makes out a stark contrast with firearms regulation. Americans are more confident inferring the malicious intent of a shooter than a driver, because they can imagine themselves in the shoes of the latter much more easily. The puzzle of a driver who strikes probably, but not definitely, on purpose creates cognitive dissonance for other drivers that is now being exploited by practitioners of political violence. They know that Americans are primed to accept explanations of vehicle-pedestrian collisions as “accidental.” Indeed, this has been our society’s standard response for longer than anyone can remember. Together, these rationalizations make more vehicular attacks inevitable—during election years and at all other times.