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Former President Donald Trump at a rally in Waukesha, Wisconsin, on Aug. 5.JAMIE KELTER DAVIS/The New York Times News Service

Somewhere along the way the seven deadly sins were collapsed into one – the sin of hypocrisy. No one cares any more what crimes you may have committed, against laws or morals. They only want to know: Are you a hypocrite? Did you say one thing and do another?

It doesn’t matter how badly you behave so long as you do not pretend to be any better than what you are: for as hypocrisy is the only sin, so authenticity is the only virtue.

The appeal of this one-dimensional ethical plane is obvious. Moral judgments are hard, and invite accusations of piety (or – worse! – hypocrisy). Simple pairwise comparisons, on the other hand – said this, did that – are easy.

The same monomania for comparison has infected our politics. It is simply impossible to draw moral judgments – to say “that was wrong, they shouldn’t have done that” – about anything, or anyone. Not without being assailed by squadrons of partisans demanding to know “what about that other thing those other guys did?”

It doesn’t matter whether the other thing is, in fact, of the same degree of turpitude. To the whatabouter, all that matters is that it is another thing – if not to absolve his own side of any wrongdoing, then at least to impugn any criticism as evidence that they are being held to a double standard: to make that, and not the thing itself, the issue. At the very least, it serves as a convenient distraction.

This has become the standard response to virtually any controversy of late. Did Donald Trump steal top secret documents from the White House and refuse to return them? What about Hillary Clinton’s emails? Did Pierre Poilievre shake hands with the leader of a far-right organization? What about the Liberals’ funding of that racist anti-racism consultant?

And so, in the wake of that frightening incident involving the Finance Minister, Chrystia Freeland – accosted as she entered an elevator by a large and plainly unhinged man, whose behaviour suggested he might turn violent at any moment – the reaction in some quarters was not “that was terrible, why is this happening, let us resolve to prevent it from happening again” but another adventure in whataboutery.

What about that time last year when someone cracked an egg on Maxime Bernier’s head? What about that time some protesters hanged Stephen Harper in effigy? What about what about what about – anything but address the issue at hand.

I don’t want to suggest this is entirely cynical. I understand the frustration many on the right feel. Doubtless it is true that the media have been too willing to look the other way when the violent rhetoric, or indeed violence, has come from the left: the same double standard that so infuriated supporters of the Ottawa convoy, after the seeming toleration of the railway blockades.

But it takes a certain moral obtuseness, in the wake of an apprehended assault on a public figure, to focus not on the incident itself, or even on media treatment of it, but on media treatment of a range of wholly unconnected events, some of them years past. When that obsession leads some on the right to refuse even to condemn the assault itself, something has gone very wrong.

Were the Liberals trying to milk the incident for partisan gain? Of course. But they would not be in a position to do so had some Conservatives not put themselves in the position of seeming to condone such attacks, if only by their silence. How on earth did it become a matter of partisan or ideological debate whether it is okay to subject politicians to threats and intimidation?

Yes, the Freeland incident elicited a greater response than some previous encounters between political leaders and the public. But was that necessarily because of a double standard? Or was there something in the nature and circumstances of this event that made it qualitatively different?

There is a context, in other words, both in the specifics – the threat posed to, and perceived by, a woman at close quarters with a large and enraged man hurling explicitly misogynist insults at her – and, more generally, in the rising tide of political violence, and the potential for it, in Canada no less than in other countries.

In such a climate, it is not unreasonable to ask those who have contributed so mightily to it – invoking a range of menacing phantasms, from the World Economic Forum to armed climate cops to being force-fed a diet of crickets, a message calculated to appeal to the most credulous part of the population – to take a step back.

If they cannot bring themselves to abstain from raising such apocalyptic fears, they can at least suggest to their followers that they refrain from acting on them.

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