Saturday, January 15, 2011

My Thoughts on Tuscon...

A week has now passed since the highly publicized shooting rampage in Tuscon, Arizona that claimed the lives of six people and left a dozen others wounded, including congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. The story itself has been covered ad infinitum by the media, so I won't bother with rehashing the events in any detail here, but I would like to devote a few paragraphs to the questions of blame that have been bandied about in the press so much in the last few days.

I've intentionally avoided posting anything on the subject until now, not only because the facts are still emerging but because my initial reaction to the incident (as anyone following my Twitter feed knows) was not exactly cool and measured. You'll note that I brought up former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin and unsuccessful GOP senatorial candidate Sharron Angle by name in the hours after the shooting, rather angrily calling to mind some of the violent rhetoric and revolutionary imagery that those two (and others) seemed to revel in during the 2010 election cycle. Now that the dust has begun to settle somewhat, I'd like to clarify my thoughts and discuss the issue at greater length.

Before the blood had even stopped flowing last Saturday, the internet was ablaze with blog posts, tweets, and articles reminding the American public of the rather grisly thread of revolutionary rhetoric and bellicose language that, while always present at the fringes of American society, has recently seemed to grow in volume. Many folks, myself included, speculated that Jared Lee Loughner, the Tuscon shooter, may have been spurred on by some of this rhetoric. Of particular interest were comments made by Angle over the summer regarding "Second Amendment remedies" to our nation's political problems and a political action map on one of Sarah Palin's websites that showed certain congressional seats targeted by crosshairs. Some even went on to blame conservatives and TEA Party groups for violence outright. (I'm happy to say that I didn't go quite that far, though it's mostly because I recused myself from the keyboard for a few days.)

Meanwhile, folks on the political right (I'm looking at you, Cal Thomas) were quick to claim that, in fact, the shootings in Tuscon happened only because the perpetrator was "evil". No need for nuanced explanations or soul-searching, Loughner's just evil. End of story. In the article linked above, Cal Thomas calls that particular non-explanation "moral clarity". Others noted that there's no proof that the gunman was motivated by any specific political statements on either side of spectrum (which is true) and in any event, because Loughner's MySpace page listed The Communist Maniefsto as one of his favorite books, he must be a liberal (which is asinine).

In sum, we got page after page and hour after hour of "whoever is responsible, it wasn't our side - in fact it was probably those other guys". How constructive.

The fact of the matter is that, judging by all of Loughner's quasi-lucid Youtube rants (Collected here, although I make no claims that this is actually his personal Youtube channel as is stated in the profile.) he was probably at least borderline schizophrenic. His videos make precious little sense and I personally get nothing out of them save for a splash of anti-government paranoia and a big heaping dollop of persecution fantasies informed by the occasional use of the sorts of political babble you find in POLS 101 essays. Depending on how you want to label the guy, I imagine it would be fairly easy to brand him either a left-wing anarchist or a "right-wing Sovereign Citizens nutjob", a phrase I believe I used on Twitter last Saturday and now somewhat regret. In the case of a man as incoherent and seemingly disturbed as Loughner, I'm not sure such labels are particularly illustrative.

It is also the case that ultimate responsibility for the killings lies with Loughner. I don't want to get into any discussion of whether or not he was so disturbed that he lack the personal agency necessary to be in control of his actions. At this point we don't yet know his mental status, and it was his finger on the trigger regardless. That said, it may or may not prove to be the case that he was influenced in some meaningful way by the heated political climate in this country. We don't have any real reason to think that at this point. It now seems that Rep. Giffords had been on his radar for some time, as one of his acquaintances claims that Loughner had once spoken to her at a political event and felt slighted by their exchange, so this may have been the product of some kind of long-held grudge. It could also have been a semi-random act in which Loughner was lashing out at a representative (any representative) of the government he felt was out to get him.

It seems likely to me, and keep in mind that I'm engaging in bald-faced speculation here, that any messages Loughner was receiving from the current political discourse were refracted through the prism of his own mind and informed by his own paranoid fantasies about "government mind control" to such an extent that the end product would have very little to do with reality. Again, at this point we don't know what was going through his head in the days and hours leading up to the killings, and I'm not sure that even Loughner could explain his actions in any sensical way. For the time being, I don't think there's much more we can say about Jared Lee Loughner.1

All that said, I also think it's true that the violent political rhetoric being spewed by the extreme fringe of the political right these day is supremely unhelpful. I'm also disturbed that, during the last couple of election cycles, certain mainstream politicians have reached out to this fringe in an attempt to mobilize what they seem to think is their base. I'm all for erring on the side of more free speech, and the use of militaristic terminology in politics is neither new nor inherently bad. We rhetorically "go to war" and "fight battles" for various causes all the time, sometimes "falling on our swords" when things go poorly. There's no harm in that sort of language. That said, when a woman running as a major party for the U.S. Senate called for "Second Amendment remedies" to deal with her political opponents, I think we're right cry foul. There aren't many ways to interpret such a statement, and all of them are unsavory. Thinly veiled jokes about assassination probably shouldn't be a regular part of top-level political discourse.2

To sum up, Loughner is, kindly put, a nutjob and his motives are likely to remain inscrutable to those of us who actually choose to live in the real world. While he may or may not have been spurred on by the bile being belched forth by some of the politicians in this country (and at this point we have no real reason to assume that he was), ultimately he is the only one culpable for the crimes that he committed. Regardless, it'd probably be better if politicians refrained from talking about killing their political rivals, skulling legislators with baseball bats, or overthrowing the government. After all, the vast majority of us are rational adults...right?

1.) There is, in truth, quite a bit more to discuss regarding Jared Loughner, such as asking how a man who in hindsight seems so disturbed was able to legally purchase a gun, or how he seems to have avoided receiving any kind of mental health treatment, but those are discussions for another day. None of that absolves Loughner of his responsibility for the murders, but those issues are certainly well worth discussing.

2.) I'm using Angle's quote as a modern example, but I'm well aware that vitriolic, frankly dangerous, rhetoric is by no means limited historically to the political right. Segregation-era Democrats, especially here in the South, spewed some of the foulest, most despicable nonsense you can imagine. Be that as it may, in recent years such talk has been more the realm of the fringe right than the fringe left. During George W. Bush's presidency, there were lots of shrill calls by the extreme left to impeach the president, but as far as I'm aware, no Democratic political candidate suggested that he be dealt with by way of the Second Amendment.

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