A dysfunctional moment in American history

Whatever comes of the blame game around the Arizona shooting, we need a more rational political discourse.

Wendy Kaminer
columnist

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Jared Loughner, the possibly deranged 22-year-old who opened fire on Arizona congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and an unlucky collection of citizens who stopped by her meet-and-greet outside a supermarket, appears – so far – to lack any coherent political ideology and may or may not be capable of harbouring one. But along with the shock, sorrow and outrage occasioned by the shooting that left six people dead, 14 injured, and Giffords with an uncertain future after a bullet passed through her brain, there were predictable concerns, right and left, about the political fallout of the shooting.

Disparate groups of activists and advocates worried that Loughner might be considered one of them. An initial report that he had referenced not trusting in God alarmed atheists and agnostics who feared (not unreasonably) that his rampage would be cited as additional evidence that we ‘cannot be good without God’. The targeting of a Democratic congresswoman in a very conservative state, with very lax gun laws, worried Tea Partiers whose movement is associated with violent political rhetoric (also not unreasonably).

So, some immediately condemned Loughner as a liberal, a charge that will resonate with many on the right considering his selection of The Communist Manifesto as a favourite book. On the left, there’s little comfort to be gained from Loughner’s anointment of Mein Kampf as a favourite, too (in a list that also included Alice in Wonderland and The Old Man and the Sea) given Hitler’s status in popular culture as a non-ideological political villain, used by the right to tar the left as often as he is used by the left to tar the right. Loughner’s reported celebration of flag burning is also ammunition against the allegedly unpatriotic left and the presumptively liberal civil libertarians who support the First Amendment right to burn a flag.

The concerns of godless groups may have been premature: Loughner’s remark about not trusting in God occurred in the context of a rant about currencies. US dollar bills bear the motto ‘In God we trust’, but in one of his YouTube videos, Loughner declares: ‘I will not pay debt with a currency that is not backed by gold and silver! No! I will not trust God!’ That doesn’t mean his comments won’t be taken out of context by religious crusaders, however.

Democrats and Republicans are already volleying accusations of blame or indirect responsibility. At first glance, Republicans seem more vulnerable: because Giffords is a Democrat; because she was one of 20 congressional Democrats put ‘in the crosshairs’ by a notorious pre-election target or ‘bullseyes’ list issued by Sarah Palin; and because, in fact, in the past two years, the right has far surpassed the left in issuing lightly veiled threats of political violence and outré condemnations of government and politicians.

This doesn’t mean that right-wingers are naturally more unreasonable or attracted to violence than left wingers. You can attribute the right’s rhetoric to reversals of political fortunes in 2008, when Democrats took the White House and Congress: whichever side is out of power is likely to be angrier than the side that’s in power. You can point to the wider dissemination of right-wing than left-wing rhetoric afforded by a conservative media apparatus established over the past several decades including, not incidentally, top-rated Fox News (which can claim a larger share of misinformed viewers than any other major network).

The establishment media generally blames hateful rhetoric on activists right and left, in the interest of appearing balanced; like politicians, established media strive for centrist appeal. But you’d have to travel back in time nearly 50 years to hear violent political rhetoric from the left comparable to the right’s rhetoric today. (In fact, you might have to travel back 30 or 40 years to find a politically effective, left-leaning liberalism.) The fact that extremist political vitriol was more prevalent on the right than the left while Obama and the Democrats held power is not a statement about the character of any party or ideology. It is simply a statement of fact.

But facts don’t matter much in popular political discourse these days, so ‘messaging’, not facts, will probably determine how blame for Loughner’s murderous assault will be assessed – although the messages each side issues about hate speech may be essentially irrelevant. Any actual, causal connection between the attack and the degeneration of political discourse will probably never be clear, especially if Loughner is mentally ill and prone to violence. He did reportedly target Gabrielle Giffords, but we’ll never know if, in the absence of the political fury of the past two years, he would simply have targeted someone else.

I don’t mean to excuse the inflammatory, fact-free ravings of far-right talk show celebrities and political leaders, which should not be presumed to incite violence but can be blamed for inciting idiocy. Comparing Obama to Hitler and convincing some 20 per cent of the public that he is a foreign-born Muslim (for whom Hitler would have had little use) or spreading demonstrably false claims that healthcare reform mandates death panels for the elderly, doesn’t exactly elevate public debate, much less illuminate policy or electoral choices, anymore than spreading pervasive fear of terrorism helps us rationally confront risk, while preserving rights.

Do I digress? We’re in the midst of a dangerously idiotic, dysfunctionally anxious moment in our history (I hope it’s only a moment) that defies coherent analysis. We have suffered horrific political violence before, in my lifetime (never mind the civil war). For some of us, the assault in Arizona is a sickening reminder of the Kennedy and Martin Luther King assassinations and the maiming of George Wallace. (The attempted murders of Ronald Reagan and Gerald Ford are less vivid only because they didn’t succeed.) In the aftermath of assassinations, we try consoling ourselves with hope that we’ve hit bottom, that we’ll sober up, that we’re capable of peaceful co-existence, that maybe even the unhinged among us will hesitate to trade ballots for bullets. We take comfort in eloquence, as if it were a promise of sanity.

When Martin Luther King was assassinated on the evening of 4 April 1968, Robert Kennedy, campaigning for president in Indianapolis, spoke extemporaneously to a black crowd in a poor section of town, which he had been advised for the sake of safety to avoid. He began by informing people of King’s murder and then delivered an impromptu speech, credited with helping to maintain calm in Indianapolis when other cities rioted.

Kennedy acknowledged the temptation to respond with ‘bitterness, with hatred, and a desire for revenge’. He urged instead ‘mak(ing) an effort, as Martin Luther King did, to understand and to comprehend, and to replace that violence, that stain of bloodshed that has spread across our land, with an effort to understand with compassion and love. For those of you who are black and are tempted to be filled with hatred and distrust at the injustice of such an act, against all white people, I can only say that I feel in my own heart the same kind of feeling. I had a member of my family killed, but he was killed by a white man. But we have to make an effort in the United States, we have to make an effort to understand, to go beyond these rather difficult times… Let us dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world.’

Reading this speech today, I remember the trauma of the King assassination: the horrified hopelessness of the moment, the fear for our country. Robert Kennedy still voiced faith in ‘love and wisdom’ and justice, but two months later he was killed, too.

Eventually the moment passed; so did the possibilities – the what might have beens – if King and Kennedy had lived; so did some of our political faiths, or illusions. Edward Kennedy carried on (and died in his bed at 76). An anti-gun movement was energised; eventually, the attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan facilitated passage of some relatively ineffectual gun-control laws, which are of questionable validity now that the Supreme Court has found a Second Amendment right to own a gun. Gabrielle Giffords is an advocate of gun rights, among other rights and liberties. (Giffords is a former board member of the Arizona ACLU.)

The right to own guns is a fact of American life, law, and culture; so is the right to indulge in extremist political vitriol. There will likely be renewed calls to erode or eliminate both rights; and, personally, I am not terribly sympathetic to an unqualified, universal right to purchase a gun or carry one concealed or unconcealed in public. But, collectively, we don’t generally suffer from too many rights, although, individually, some will always lack the reason and decency to exercise them. I don’t believe human savageness will ever be tamed or the life of this world will ever be gentle.

Wendy Kaminer is a lawyer, writer and free speech activist. Her latest book is Worst Instincts: Cowardice, Conformity, and the ACLU. (Buy this book from Amazon (UK).)

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