The news is pretty grim this week, after the shootings in Arizona, and there's a lot of rhetoric about rhetoric floating around as well, some of it on the left just as vituperative as on the right. It looks like the shooter was mentally unbalanced, but when can that not be said about any shooter of fellow humans? It takes a certain insanity to want to end another person's life for any other reason than self-defense (and I wonder if that impulse isn't just to get the person attacking you to stop, any way you can, rather than a conscious, specifically you-or-me life-and-death choice). Assassination, however, which is what this was, is particularly cold and calculating and abhorrent, even when mixed up with mental illness.
The big question on everyone's mind is how much the current poisonous atmosphere of hate and recrimination and vitriol (a favorite word to fling around) contributed to the mindset of the shooter. He seemed to be fixated on Congresswoman Giffords, and the other casualties occurred mostly because he had more rounds in his gun. His own ramblings were, as has been pointed out, "straight out of the Right-Wing Insanity Handbook," as William Pitt says on Truthout, above. Loughner seems enamored of conspiracy theories and fringe ideas, but whether the crosshairs posted by Sarah Palin or her "don't retreat, reload" (half-)witticism influenced him to pull the trigger will be impossible to determine.
Motive is always murky, even when the actor is not mentally disturbed. Do any of us truly know why we do what we do? What things in our lives make us act the way we do? It's just handy but standard procedure to blame our parents, blame society, blame our siblings, blame our neighbors, but none of us, except the truly mentally incapacitated, can escape personal responsibility. How much Loughner's capacity is diminished hasn't yet been determined, so his amount of personal responsibility can't yet be apportioned.
But those of us who aren't of diminished mental capacity, who function just fine in the world, who get up every morning and go to work, take care of our kids, pay the mortgage, vote, complain about the government, volunteer, and think of ourselves as decent human beings, what kind of responsibility do we bear for others violence? When does a nation become . . . a mob?
It's very hard not to hate someone who threatens your way of life and your cherished personal beliefs, and hate is a catalyst for anger. The knee-jerk reaction is usually along the lines of "what the fuck is wrong with you? Are you crazy? You idiot!" We're defending our territory and some of that territory is very personal: health care, the apportionment of wealth, education, our personal pet hobbyhorses. I get a little crazed when people try to tell me vaccines are the cause of autism and a product of a government conspiracy, because I'd really rather not see the spread of things like small pox, measles, mumps, rubella, whooping cough, scarlet fever, chicken pox, shingles, pneumonia, and influenza kill or maim or even sicken anybody. It scares me on a visceral level, and that's never a good place from which to begin a reasonable discussion. Religious discussions tend to get heated for the same reason: the outcome, in believers' minds has to do with nothing less than life and death, not to mention the afterlife. When we are threatened on such a basic level, rationality and civility take a back seat.
But it's disingenuous to say that language that uses violence as a metaphor cannot be taken seriously. For Palin to claim “We know violence isn’t the answer. . . . When we take up our arms, we’re talking about our votes,” is worse than disingenuous, it's ignorant. Never mind that we don't know, really, who she means by that pronoun "we" and neither can she. One need only look at history for examples of how "coded" and seemingly innocent remarks like the "second amendment solutions" and symbolic crosshairs can turn to violence. Anybody remember Thomas Becket?
Becket was Archbishop of Canterbury in the 12th century, when one of the major issues (as it continued to be through the reign of Henry VIII), was the power and rights of the Church in England. Becket claimed the papacy's primacy in trying clerics for anything up to and including murder; Henry, busily reforming England's legal structure, claimed that right for his civil courts. Though appointed by Henry, Becket's conscience dictated that his loyalties and best interests resided with the papacy. Henry found this rather annoying, to say the least.
Whether Henry actually made that peevish, offhand remark from his sickbed—"Will no one rid me of this turbulent (or "troublesome" or "meddlesome") priest?"—or whether it was a taunting annoyance with his own courtiers, as Becket's contemporary biographer (and witness to the assassination) claims (""What miserable drones and traitors have I nourished and brought up in my household, who let their lord be treated with such shameful contempt by a low-born cleric?"), it led to the murder of a political figure struggling with Henry for the power of the kingdom. We'll never know if Henry made those remarks in a moment of frustration or calculatedly, knowing his word was law and that someone would take the hint and "get rid" of Becket for him. The point is, the words were said, and acted upon. When you let words loose in the world, whether spoken or written, in a place where others have access to them, you have lost control of not just their interpretation, but of their consequences.
In this country, we have the right to say whatever we like, if it's not like shouting "Fire!" in a crowded theater when there isn't one. I posit that saying we should resort to "second amendment solutions" and similar rhetoric is the moral equivalent to that standard. Words like this are not just inflammatory but incendiary. In a country with slipshod regulation of guns, that's criminal behavior, too. There is such an offense as incitement. And while I believe that the purpose of the Second Amendment was to give the populace the means to protect itself from and, if necessary, rise up against a tyrannical government, picking off its representatives because you don't like what they say is not the best solution. I don't think we're in need of an armed insurrection. And that's not what this, or any other assassination we've experienced as a nation is.
We often exaggeratedly say "I could just kill X," or "So and so would be better off dead." because they frustrate or enrage us, and we know we don't really mean it. But sometimes, just for a moment, or maybe longer, we do. Worse, sometimes, somebody else thinks we mean it, and agrees, and has the means and will to make it so, and what we've said may be their tipping point or jusitification. Sometimes, that offhand remark is not much different than "get him!" That make us at the very least complicit, if not outright culpable.
Be careful what you wish for; you might get it.