I deplore the attack on Representative Giffords, the act of a madman. The lady herself seems brave and witty, just the sort of opponent I would like to have. I share the sorrow we all feel at the events of yesterday.
Nevertheless, we need better thinking than we are getting on the questions this raises. War is politics by other means, as we know from von Clausewitz. Politics is therefore war by other means. They are two ends of one thing.
What is that thing? Let us look to MCDP #1, Warfighting.
The essence of war is a violent struggle between two hostile,independent, and irreconcilable wills, each trying to impose itself on the other.
Both war and politics are struggles between hostile, independent wills, each trying to impose itself on the other. That is the thing. What, then, defines the frontier between war and politics?
The difference between war and politics is not whether the struggle is violent. Writing your will into law means enforcement of that law by police, courts, prisons. All of these things are violence, ranging from threats of the seizure of wealth or life to the actual seizure of these things.
Neither is it the question of whether the wills are irreconcilable. Irreconcilable wills can choose to go their own way in peace.
The difference between war and politics is consent. The two wills consent to abide by a given system for settling the disputes. This consent is conditional upon the performance of duties that the government assumes along with the powers it is delegated. If the duties are not performed, or if the powers are exceeded, consent may be revoked.
That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it[.]
I notice that this tragedy has already spawned calls by Democratic representatives to restrict the rights protected under the First Amendment, and the Second. I understand their alarm, but this response is precisely wrong. It is a violation of the duty that gives them the right to claim to be operating from consent. This is bad thinking of the first order.
Another set of bad thinking lies in these claims coming from various politicians to the effect that 'violence has no place in politics.' No American should speak that way. The American project was born in rebellion. Any American who would be faithful to the project has to give an account of how and when such violence against political figures is justified. A failure to give such an account is self-serving, at best: the cry of elected officials that "violence must never be used against elected officials!"
You can set the bar for such justification high -- as high as you like, so long as it leaves room for George Washington, Samuel Adams, and Patrick Henry. Clarity of thought is important. This is the most serious question that might ever trouble a nation.
My own thoughts on the appropriate standards are here; they are about four years old now, and so are not part of the current tragedy. They may not be the right ones. If we are going to have a discussion about this issue, let's have one worthy of a free people deserving of our proud heritage.