As 2021 has unfolded, the unsettling intimidation campaigns, largely from the far-right, have targeted far too many groups of unsuspecting Americans. From election officials to public health officials to flight attendants, it's been a difficult year filled with threats, confrontations, and fear.
Local education officials, meanwhile, have dealt with the same scourge, including threats of violence, in large numbers. It's why the National School Boards Association recently requested federal law enforcement assistance. It's also why Attorney General Merrick Garland said last week that the Justice Department would, in fact, explore ways to help.
What I didn't expect was for so many prominent Republicans to be outraged — not by the threats and intimidation, but by Garland's willingness to assist scared local education officials. As we discussed last week, a variety of GOP officials, including Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, have pretended that the attorney general intends to target the Biden administration's "political opponents."
As The Washington Times, a conservative outlet, reported over the weekend, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has joined his party's pushback campaign.
In a letter to Mr. Garland sent Friday, the Kentucky Republican called the memo misguided and asked for several points of clarification. "Your memorandum's ominous rhetoric doesn't reflect the reality of what we have seen at school boards across the country in recent months," the Republican leader wrote.
The Senate GOP leader went on to say that parents should be "commended and encouraged" for taking an interest in local education policies, adding that he's concerned more about "intimidation of private citizens by government officials."
Circling back to our earlier coverage, one might think, given the partisan pushback, that the attorney general's announcement included highly provocative language that had the effect of triggering GOP fury. Reality points in a different direction.
"In recent months, there has been a disturbing spike in harassment, intimidation, and threats of violence against school administrators, board members, teachers, and staff who participate in the vital work of running our nation's public schools," Garland wrote in a memorandum. "While spirited debate about policy matters is protected under our Constitution, that protection does not extend to threats of violence or efforts to intimidate individuals based on their views.
"Threats against public servants are not only illegal, they run counter to our nation's core values. Those who dedicate their time and energy to ensuring that our children receive a proper education in a safe environment deserve to be able to do their work without fear for their safety."
Imagine reading this and responding furiously.
I won't pretend to know whether McConnell and his colleagues are sincere in their purported outrage. It's certainly possible that some Republican officials are genuinely fearful of law enforcement overreach. It's also possible that GOP officials — especially ambitious ones — want to be seen catering to the interests of far-right activists and downplaying the fears of local education officials.
But my larger concern is that the intensity of the Republican pushback will have a chilling effect. How many officials at the Justice Department and the Department of Homeland Security might start hesitating in response to legitimate threats against local school boards because they're afraid GOP lawmakers and governors will retaliate?
In early 2009, the Department of Homeland Security prepared a document alerting law enforcement to potential threats from ideological extremists and their interest in politically motivated violence. The report had been commissioned by the Bush/Cheney administration, but congressional Republicans and conservative media freaked out anyway, suggesting that the Obama administration was preparing to target political opponents on the right. Some GOP members of Congress even called for then-DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano's resignation.
As bizarre as the Republican tantrum was, federal officials responded by scaling back their scrutiny, at least for a while, of home-grown extremists and potentially violent fringe radicals. The chilling effect was obvious: The Department of Homeland Security simply didn't want to have to deal with the GOP's misguided fury.
More than a decade later, here's hoping the Justice Department focuses more on public safety than on partisan pushback.