Rampell: GOP bills winking at vehicular assault also get blame

By Catherine Rampell

Last weekend in Charlottesville, a driver mowed down peaceful protesters and killed 32-year-old Heather Heyer. The act was reminiscent of recent terrorist attacks across Europe committed in the name of the Islamic State, which has urged followers to use vehicles to kill enemies.

As far as we know, the alleged killer in Charlottesville didn’t get instructions from the Islamic State. As far as we know, he didn’t even receive marching orders from any of the neo-Nazi groups with which he sympathized.

But he also didn’t need to turn to either of these factions for inspiration. He could just have easily have gotten the idea from a Republican state legislature.

This year, Republican lawmakers in at least six states have proposed bills designed to protect drivers who strike protesters. The first bill was introduced in North Dakota in January, and similar bills have since come under consideration in North Carolina, Tennessee, Florida, Texas and Rhode Island.

They were joined by other states trying to discourage protests — typically relating to Black Lives Matter, the Dakota Access Pipeline or other left-leaning causes — that sometimes obstruct traffic.

The North Dakota bill would shield drivers from civil and criminal liability. The bill’s sponsor, state Rep. Keith Kempenich, perversely suggested that shielding drivers who kill protesters was a necessary anti-terrorism measure.

Protesters who blocked cars were committing “an intentional act of intimidation — the definition of terrorism,” he told the Los Angeles Times.

Right-wing websites and at least one well-known conservative commentator more gleefully advocated running over protesters, including by sharing a viral video montage titled “Here’s a Reel of Cars Plowing Through Protesters Trying to Block the Road.”

I wonder: Did the Republican politicians and pundits who backed these measures believe too few protesters were getting hit by cars?

If not, what did they think would happen when they encouraged drivers to use their vehicles as a weapon against the public?

Because that’s exactly what these bills do.

The bills all include language about how drivers who injure or kill protesters must have done so “unintentionally” or while exercising “due care” if they wish to be spared liability. (Hitting protesters intentionally, as the Charlottesville driver appears to have done, could still make one subject to civil and criminal liability.) Even so, the foreseeable effect of passing laws like these would be to change the calculus for any frustrated driver considering whether to plow through a crowd of protesters.

Economists tend to think about decisions in terms of expected costs and benefits. By lowering the expected costs to the driver, these proposed laws would tilt the balance in favor of hitting people.

And not just any people. Protesters specifically.

In five of the six states where bills were introduced, the legislation would shield drivers who hit protesters or demonstrators only. Drivers who kill pedestrians who are not out exercising their First Amendment rights would still be subject to the usual criminal and civil liabilities.

In other words, the purpose of these proposals was to make acts of protest, and acts of protest alone, more lethal.

So far none of these bills has made it into law.

Already, though, white supremacists have latched on to the rhetoric behind these bills to excuse Heyer’s death. In “Vice News Tonight’s” chilling Charlottesville documentary, neo-Nazi Christopher Cantwell said her murder was “more than justified” because the driver was provoked by “stupid animals” who attacked and then “couldn’t just get out of the way” because they weren’t paying attention.

Surely the whataboutists will claim the left’s angry “resistance” rhetoric encouraged someone to attempt to murder Republican legislators. To be clear, that act was also evil. There is, however, no comparison between mean words and changing the law to indemnify people who kill others in a highly specific way.

As I’ve previously argued, there’s plenty of blame to dump on President Trump for emboldening white supremacists and for encouraging violence against peaceful protesters. But to treat him as an aberration in encouraging violence against protesters — in particular, liberals and people of color — is flat wrong.

The moral rot in the Republican Party runs deep.

Maybe the state legislators who introduced these bills are malevolent, and maybe they’re just morons. In politics, I tend to err on the side of the latter explanation. Either way, they advocated reckless bills whose foreseeable consequence would be increased vehicular killings.

These politicians are not fit to serve the public, in any level of government.

Residents of North Dakota, North Carolina, Tennessee, Florida, Texas and Rhode Island: Look these goons up and vote them out.

Catherine Rampell’s email address is crampell@washpost.com. Follow her on Twitter, @crampell.

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