This past Saturday, a disturbed young man named Jared Loughner came to a supermarket in Arizona, armed with a gun. There, he took aim at Democratic congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords as she met with constituents in a one-on-one setting, and shot her at point blank range. Miraculously, she survived. The man, however, kept shooting, such that fourteen others were shot and six, including a federal judge and a nine-year-old girl, died.
The attempted assassination of Gabrielle Giffords sparked a firestorm on Twitter — such a firestorm, in fact, that for the first hour or so it was difficult to be clear on the details of what was happening, in a matter little different from the confusion that was occurring within the mainstream media at the time. When there were conflicting reports on whether the congresswoman was alive or dead, Steve V of the blog Far and Wide said it best, I think, when he said:
This is one of those days when the instanteous world of twiiter isn’t exactly a “plus”.
Though he was far from the only blogger to do so (and far from the first), Dr. Dawg was quick off the mark, linking the attempted assassination of Giffords to the heated eliminationist rhetoric that has infected the right half of the political debate in the United States. I criticized him for it, saying it was too soon to draw such conclusions, though I wasn’t too strenuous in that regard, because some of what Dawg was saying out loud was being whispered in my head.
Gabrielle Giffords was a Democrat in a state that has a strong reputation for tilting conservative Republican. When any politician is gunned down, it’s natural to look at the politician’s politics and cast an eye at the opposing viewpoint, suspecting it’s the shooter’s motivation. The fact that Tea Party icon Sarah Palin painted a crosshairs over Giffords’ district in retribution for the congresswoman voting in favour of Obama’s health care reforms, draws further connections between Giffords’ shooting and the eliminationist rhetoric that was used against her.
But on Saturday, this was happening too fast. Dawg posted his post when there were conflicting reports on whether Giffords was alive or dead (she wasn’t dead; she’d just gone into surgery). We didn’t even know the name of the shooter. At best, this was a rush to judgement. Pragmatically speaking, I would have suggested that people like Dawg should have kept their powder dry until more facts were known — the better to avoid any backtracking in the future.
However the meme that the dangerously overheated political rhetoric contributed to this incident was quickly taken up by the media, thanks in part to the identification of the shooter and the discovery of his YouTube channel. It was helped along in no small part by the response of a very eloquent local sheriff who lambasted the political talk shows and called Arizona “the capital” of bigotry and intolerance in the country.
Much as I agree with Dawg and Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik that the level of eliminationist rhetoric is dangerous (and more prevalent and mainstream on the right half of the political sphere than on the left), Jared Loughner might not be the right person to make this connection on. Reading through the guy’s rhetoric, it’s clear that he’s crazy to the point of political incoherence. His rantings include demands that the United States go back to the gold standard, and do more to improve people’s grammar. Among his books include works by Ayn Rand, Hitler’s Mein Kempf and the Communist Manifesto.
All of this tells me that Loughner was a powderkeg that was going to go off regardless of what rhetoric motivated him. It’s entirely possible that had Giffords lost last November’s election to her Tea Party-backed opponent, he might be the one to have had a bullet put through his head, and what would we be saying then?
The rush to judgement on the motivations of the murderer is one thing; the defensive reactions by those who might feel themselves implicated by discussion is equally discouraging. Some Conservatives were quick to point out that Giffords herself owned a gun, in an obvious attempt to forestall the linking of this incident to a debate on gun control. One particularly cracked conservative commentator suggested that the presence of Mein Kempf in Loughner’s collection proved he was a lefty. That’s just sad as well as stupid.
The debate over the eliminationist rhetoric that has infected political discourse in the United States and Canada has to be had. And I guess if this incident gives us an opportunity to have this debate in constructive fashion and with lasting results, some good may come out of this. But I’m a little perplexed about why we’re having this debate now, when a similar debate didn’t happen back in July 2008. Then, a psychotic man walked into a Unitarian church in Knoxville, Tennessee and started shooting. His targets were indisputably the members of the congregation because of the liberal views they held. His writings, far more coherent than Loughners, show this. Among his collection of books was “Liberalism is a Mental Health Disorder” by Michael Savage.
Is this because the mainstream media, while it largely has no coherent political bias, tends to bias its stories towards a simple narrative of conflict? The left-leaning Christian blogger Chet Scoville noticed this himself; the media tends to downplay the existence of liberal leaning churches in America, because they believe that there are two sides to every story, and only two sides. In the culture war they see going on within the United States, the sides are arranged between the Christian Right and the Secular Humanist Left. If you’re the square peg that can’t fit within the circular hole, do you get ignored?
Is the public who are used to this type of media storytelling unable to make the connection between a psychopath targeting the congregation of a liberal church and violent anti-liberal rhetoric because such a thing as a liberal church congregation doesn’t exist in their political consciousness? Is it easier to connect the attack on Giffords to the toxic political debate around her because she is a politician? Certainly the phrase “political assassination” comes more easily when the target is a politician; the media has a lot of experience reporting on these incidents, and they are a staple of plenty of thrillers in books and television (see 24; the politicians are major characters — the average joes who go to church are somewhat less so).
But regardless of whether or not eliminationist rhetoric led to Jared Loughner aiming a gun at Congresswoman Giffords’ head, maybe we should be reminded that regardless of our political opinions, we are all people. Those on opposite sides of the political debate can and do disagree on loads of issues, such as how much should be taxed and what services the government should be obliged to provide and who to. We disagree about immigration and education policy, and so on.
But there exists on our fringes people who disagree with the moderates not on their political views but on the rightness of using violence to bring those views about. At some point we should reaffirm that this is a more fundamental disagreement than anything we might have about policy. And to those conservatives who like to defend themselves by saying “well, yeah, the left does it too”, the fact remains that these extremists are speaking on your behalf, and some of your mainstream leaders are using their rhetoric to further their own political ends.
Maybe it’s time to rethink what we think about our political opponents, starting with the fact that we are political opponents and not enemies. We are not at war with each other, and anybody who uses rhetoric to suggest otherwise should be called out for his or her hyperbole. It is time to ramp it down, folks, before more people get hurt.