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opinion

Some time in the not too distant future, when the first Canadian politician has been assassinated since Pierre Laporte, we will all look back and wonder what we could have done to prevent it.

The probable answer is: Not much, in the sense of that particular attack. It is always easy to discover, after the fact, warning signs that were missed, gaps in security that should have been plugged. It is a much harder thing to identify these in advance.

What we can do is reduce the overall likelihood of an attack of some kind occurring. Individual behaviour does not happen in a vacuum: It is shaped by our environment, including the cues we receive from others – particularly those in positions of prominence or authority.

The first thing we can do, then, is take that idea seriously. When we see the rising tide of bile online; when a substantial proportion of the public are observed to live in terror of a number of wholly invented hobgoblins; when that fear turns to rage, and rage turns to threats, we should recognize that the odds of one of these materializing as actual political violence has also increased.

Unless, of course, it’s all a mirage – a media creation, a “moral panic.” It is all too tempting to believe it is, particularly to the contrarian mind. And so, even as concern grows that the level of rage, especially on the populist right, has reached an inflexion point, this is taken in some quarters, not as a sign of a problem that needs urgently to be addressed, but as proof of the herd mentality of the “chattering classes.”

Where others were shocked by the sight of Chrystia Freeland being cornered by a large man shouting obscenities and accusing her of treason, skeptics see only rough-and-ready democratic protest, or at worst understandable frustration. People have always yelled at politicians, one columnist yawns: there’s nothing new here. The nutters are a tiny fringe, snickers another: and besides, they don’t really mean it.

Are they right? Is the epidemic of rage we are seeing just the same old thing – unpleasant, to be sure, but not particularly worthy of concern? I don’t think so. I think the gut response many people had to the Freeland video, like earlier incidents involving Jagmeet Singh and the Prime Minister – that this was something new, and altogether more disturbing – was the correct one.

For starters, politics has never before had to deal with the radicalization engine of social media. There is a special ferocity to the current rage, an instantaneous, on-off, zero-to-60 quality, that is detached from any previous experience.

It is also wildly out of proportion to any actual grievance. This is not accidental, because those in its grip are not responding to actual events or circumstances. An angry protester in the past might be worried he would lose his job to free trade, or that governments would de-index her pension. Today’s discontents, by contrast, inhabit an alternate reality, in which Donald Trump is still president, Russia is threatened by Ukraine, vaccines and not viruses are killing thousands, and the World Economic Forum is controlling our lives – or plotting to.

These are not, for the most part, crazy people. They are sane people who have been persuaded to believe crazy things. In a previous age, they would have been less likely to be exposed to them; those who were would have been isolated and alone, unsure if anyone else held the same views. Now they can go online and find support and encouragement from thousands of like-minded souls.

More to the point, these views are being mainstreamed by populist media and political parties – indeed, by the presumptive leader of the Conservative Party. We have never before seen a leading candidate for high office in this country embrace the sorts of far-fetched conspiracy theories and paranoid fears that Pierre Poilievre has in the course of this campaign – unless you count Maxime Bernier.

But here’s the thing. People who believe crazy things are more likely to do crazy things in response. If you genuinely believe the population is being subjected to mass poisoning, or that a reclusive German economist is conspiring with the Bank of Canada to monitor your every movement, you are more likely to be persuaded that some sort of extraordinary action will be necessary to stop it.

This remains a minority of the population. Probably only a tiny fraction of them would go so far as to rationalize violence, and only a fraction of them would act on this belief. Unlike the United States, things have not reached the stage where our system of government is threatened. But a random act of political violence? It only takes one.

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