Judging from comments well into Sunday, people still feel a need to vent regarding the tragic shooting Saturday in Tucson. However, before we start down this treacherous road again, let me at least try to put things into context.
First, the attack was perpetrated by a young man who by all available evidence is mentally ill. Anyone who tries to attribute a political agenda of any sort to a soul like that is himself trying to advance a political agenda. It is wrong and disrepectful to the victims of this tragedy to try to distort it for political gain. Please, don’t go there.
However, if the incident itself was not political, there’s no question that the reaction to it became intensely political. What could have and should have been an opportunity to unite as Americans was instead quickly seized as an opportunity to divide ourselves further, to heighten rather than dampen the animosity and vitriol. The reaction told us a lot more about ourselves as a country than did the initial incident, and it was not reassuring.
We like to blame our leaders for a lot of our own shortcomings these days. Congress, for example, has never been held in lower esteem. But the truth is that our elected leaders are doing what we tell them to do. The pettiness and rhetoric in Washington reflect our own selfishness and shortsightedness here at home, and if we don’t like what they mirror back at us, well, blaming the mirror is never the answer.
That said, our elected leadership for the most part has acted appropriately and cautiously in response to Saturday’s attack, perhaps because the violence struck one of their own. Whatever the reason, the poison that infected our discussion over the weekend bubbled up from below, from among us, rather being inspired from above. The ugliness and rancor was our doing, not theirs. We — speaking in general terms — were handed a chance to leap at each others’ throats again, and too many of us eagerly jumped at it.
A lot has been made about the misuse of violent metaphors, such as crosshairs on websites and turns of phrases in speeches. For the most part, that’s nonsense. Metaphors and turns of phrases do not drive violence, and those who try to claim otherwise are again trying to smear their political opponents with innocent blood. They are contributing to the problem they claim to be identifying.
That said, “Second Amendment remedies” is not a metaphor; it is a direct legitimization of violence. American political thought is infected with the idea that violence is a legitimate political tool that can and should be employed at some unspecified point, when some unspecified political actor takes some unspecified political action that crosses some unspecified line. The decision of when such a line is crossed is typically left to the would-be patriot, but always with the suggestion that the line is getting closer, the day is drawing nearer, the threat is growing larger.
That mindset is fed by descriptions of our elected leadership as tyrants or as illegitimate usurpers out to destroy America. After all, once their tyrannical and destructive character is established, violence as a means of addressing the threat to liberty becomes justified. “Sic semper tyrannis,” as John Wilkes Booth so infamously proclaimed.
Again, there is no evidence that Jared Loughner was responding in any way to that ideology rather than to the voices echoing in his own head. But it is foolishness to pretend that others out there cannot be seduced by the false romanticism and heroism inherent in the idea of political violence.
Finally, we as a people need to acknowledge and adjust our thinking to the changing mediascape. We humans have always been afflicted with demagogues, as the ancient roots of that word demonstrate. But the easy accessibility of modern media has done more than give would-be demagogues a louder voice. There is now money to be made and a following to be gained by stripping us of our larger loyalties to the country and instead dividing us into cliques and cults defined by our animosity to each other.
Free and open debate is the lifeblood of democracy, and it is not always a genteel process. But we set the boundaries of appropriate rhetoric when we decide where to place our loyalty and attention. And we will pay the consequences of choosing wrongly.
– Jay Bookman