The Other Hands on the Barrel

Politicians and commentators have been quick to caution that the horrific shooting of Representative Gabrielle Giffords and more than a dozen others was likely less a political act than the work of a deranged individual, and we’re sure to hear more such bromides in the days ahead.

It’s rubbish.

Those who are mentally unhinged act out their bizarre delusions in idiosyncratic and sometimes taboo or illegal ways, but they draw their vocabulary, their imagery and their preoccupations from their culture. However grotesquely distorted the expression, the reference points or cues are all around them … and us.

In shootings such as the one in Tucson, when there’s a long history of overtly violent political rhetoric and winking dare-yous, one young, possibly deranged man may pull the trigger, but there are many other, more respected hands on the barrel. Those “co-conspirators” in the Arizona shooting include Sarah Palin, her similarly extreme colleagues, the followers inflamed by their histrionics and the more circumspect politicians who have given her and the movement she represents their passive or active support to further their own careers.

That Sarah Palin put Representative Giffords in her crosshairs is not a matter of conjecture. This 2010 gaphic from her PAC’s website says it all:

Palin targets

We’d all like to believe our shared narrative of civil democratic discourse, but those who choose to further their careers with vitriolic, highly personal, even violent rhetoric and graphics and melodramatic theatrics must share the blame, if not the legal culpability, for the shooting that followed a tragically predictable course.

In the coming days, we can expect politicians and
commentators to try to stabilize the volatile mood by denying that this was a political conspiracy. The first one I heard edging in that direction was James Fallows on National Public Radio on Saturday afternoon, hours after the shooting. At the start of his remarks, Fallows emphasized, rightly, that “we just don’t know very much about the circumstances, who did it and for what reason.” Still, he had plenty to discuss.

Fallows acknowledged that “We have in the United States a long and unfortunately rich tradition of political violence. And on the one hand, any attack on a politician, it seems to me, is by definition political because that’s how that person came into public view.” But he adds:

“… it’s striking how often the motives for the crime seem to be obscure or really hard to connect to mainstream political activities.” And he harkens back to the shootings of Representative Leo Ryan (near Jonestown in Guyana), Governor George Wallace and Senator Robert Kennedy.

In summing up, Fallows says those shootings had “huge political consequences, but the motives seem as much a mental disorder or personal politics as anything else. And we don’t know how that will finally play out here.”

Although he mentions Palin’s poster suggesting violence (see above), his conclusion is not that “violence-tinged” rhetoric contributed to the Tucson shooting but that “perhaps there will be less of that tone” in the future.

And perhaps everyone will rally around bipartisan values and find a common language. And perhaps the Tea Party and its enablers will recognize that they need to be more measured in their future political rhetoric. And perhaps it will be 90 degrees in the shade in Washington, D.C., tomorrow.

For those of a more realistic bent, it’s important to recognize that those who will cover up this tragedy with a blanket of feel-good platitudes do a disservice to our country’s future. The role of journalists is not to help us feel good about ourselves.

It would be more helpful to the body politic if we point out that any such deadly act has complex but traceable roots in the culture as well as in the individual psyche. In this case the most visible roots are Sarah Palin herself, her angry allies and their inflamed, uncompromising “Don’t tread on me” rhetoric that at times is indistinguishable from neo-fascism; a large cadre of mainstream politicians who cynically condone such attitudes with carefully phrased euphemisms of support in order to win votes; permissive gun laws (and their primary sponsor, the National Rifle Association) that further the Wild West, gun-first, “I got my rights” culture; and the demagoguery against immigrants and other nonthreatening, hardworking social classes.

Helping to hide from view the dangerous dysfunctions — and outright immorality — of our political “discourse” are the commentators and politicians who will go to illogical lengths to persuade us that there is no real political dimension to this supposedly singular act of madness; that we’re OK, Jack, and everything will automatically rebalance itself quickly in this, the Greatest Democracy on Earth.

10 Comments so far

  1. Sarah Sargent on January 9th, 2011

    Great commentary Peter!

    I got all steamed on Facebook at someone saying there are whack jobs on both political sides, but the culture of the Republican Party is violence. Death threats against President Obama are up 400% from Bush–Bush!! who screwed us all!

    Did you see Sarah Palin’s pathetic condolence message? This is what my friend from Arizona offered as an alternative “It is time for all if us to re-examine the tone of political discourse in America as well as the deeper fissures within our society that may encourage extremism. I pledge to do this and I ask that my supporters and colleagues join me.”

    Did you notice that the little girl who died was born on September 11, 2001 into a world of terrorism.


    Sarah Sargent

  2. Susan Zakin on January 9th, 2011

    Great piece. I also heard Fallows and noticed his phrasing.

  3. Greg Gross on January 9th, 2011

    Dead. On. Target.

  4. Margherita Davis on January 9th, 2011

    I am afraid you are correct; it has started full force. On a talk show this morning, Dick (the Tea party is grassroots) Army insisted that the seeds of this act would be found in “psychology”, not “sociology”, meaning the conditions of society had no bearing on the act of this madman. Also, a new Idaho “tea party” rep. pointed out that DC has tough gun laws and there were more murders there than in Arizona. Similar comments came from all republican lawmakers interviewed, which tells me that they will not be moved to change the discourse.

  5. Greg Gross on January 9th, 2011

    Our fascination with guns is reminiscent of a childish obsession that we somehow never outgrew. We will never be a truly great nation until we outgrow it.

  6. Glenn Woodbury on January 9th, 2011

    Good job, Peter. I dropped my NRA membership when they started blatantly shilling for the Republicans and trying to scare me with tales that the UN was trying to take away my guns (of which I have none anyway). They have nothing to do with U.S. “gun owners rights”, their reason for existance is to support U.S.gun -Manufacturers_ In other words, they’re just another damn business lobby and corporate shill.


  7. Meredith Whitford on January 9th, 2011

    A great piece, Peter. Well done.

  8. Sgt JD USMC on January 10th, 2011

    What a bunch of garbage. Where did you come up with this idiocy? Were you born stupid, or is this the result of the continuing decline of a once great education system?

    Try to actually digest a fact. Bet you never served a day to protect our country, but have just been a leech, hiding behind your mommy’s skirts.

  9. Carl Sussman on January 10th, 2011

    Pete, let me add to the Kudos. Great piece.

    On the journalistic end of the story, I am struck in the many reports I have heard the “fair and balanced” (and no, I don’t watch Fox)attribution of inflamed political rhetoric contributing to this shooting to both the left and the right.

    The perfect analogy on the relationship of political rhetoric to lighting the fuse on marginal personalities can be found in the “pro-life” movement where a succession of unstable people have been inspired to commit the political violence.

  10. Betty Medsger on January 10th, 2011

    Thanks, Peter, for this very wise analysis. Reporting this morning about long-term planning by the shooter probably provides further evidence of your point.

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