Libels and lessons learned from Tucson
I have little doubt about what we all ought to talking about after Tucson. The most pressing social issues revealed – again – by these shootings is the absence of a workable system to identify and help the many manifest loonies wandering our towns, and of a reliable way to keep guns out of their hands in the meantime. And I agree utterly that proposals to censor “incendiary speech” are misguided. The better remedy, it has been suggested, is for the great American public to impose its own social sanction against such loose talk. A big help toward that end would be a national news media more willing to examine and expose the ramblings of prophets of the Right such as Limbaugh or Beck.
What we are talking about, however, is the link, if any, between violent words and violent deeds. The question itself has been damned as inappropriate at best, rabble-rousing by the Left at worst. One observer damned it as “a reprehensible scramble to out Jared Loughner as ideological kin to their political opponents.” Indeed it is reprehensible, if the only motive in raising questions about the link between the violence of the rhetoric of the aggrieved Right and real political violence is to gain a partisan advantage. The question itself is not invalid, however unseemly the motive. Indeed, it should have been asked long before now.
Did the ranting Right mean murder? There is no evidence of it, although it is so very hard for the rest of us to tell from the way some believers talk. But while there are not grounds to label the ranters as accomplices in the shootings in Tuscon, might sensible people regard them as accessories? Even if one agrees that the Right is not to blame for Jared Loughner being a murderous sociopath, the responsibility they bear for the way he chose to express that murderous impulse is a question that awaits an answer. My own view is that those who insist that our Loughners are lunatics without political motivation, or even that lunatics do not have political motives, are mistaken. The fact that a guy is nuts doesn’t mean that he is not motivated by politics, only that he is usually not motivated by our politics, or in ways that we are motivated by politics. What is deranged thinking about public issues to most of us is perfectly rational to the killer.
In this country we fight political campaigns, marshal electoral forces, mobilize our bases. The politer commentators among us have been arguing that such commonplace martial figures of speech are mere colorful phrases. But politics, it might be said, is civil war by another means. It is preferable to actual war because most of us feel that war costs too much to conduct public affairs the way our ancestors so often did – with pitchfork and brickbat, with tar and feathers, with the lynch rope. The problem we have yet to deal with is those who are not fully of our society, such as the Loughners, who have little to lose
The American Right is especially fond of this kind of rhetoric because a significant faction of that population believes that they are engaged in a battle to determine who controls this country – not a figurative battle, mind, but a real one. At the heart of all attacks on “the government” is the fervently held belief that the U.S. government has been taken from “us” by “them.” If the government is not legitimate, then illegitimate responses to it are justified. It is the same argument used in the American colonies by the anti-British radicals of the 1770s, to whom the Tea Party in particular like to compare themselves. The result then was thuggery and murder against the Crown’s agents and supporters – an aspect of the founding that too often has been glossed over.
Violence thus is implicit in the basic political premises of the extreme Right. They regard as a living promise the sanction given by the Declaration of Independence to the violent overthrow of a government that no longer represents the will of the people. They are wildly mistaken in thinking we agree with them, but they have done us the service of reminding us that the republic owes its origins to what George III regarded as nutcases with guns.
And in war, all is fair. The purpose of rhetoric in wartime is not to persuade. Rational discourse is suspended (usually under threat of imprisonment) in even so-called enlightened nations, including this one. Rhetoric is used instead to arouse, to enflame, to embolden. If Adolph Hitler did not create German anti-Semitism, his rhetoric excited the latent anti-Semitism of the German nation and, by giving it a plausible rationale, transformed the extermination of that nation’s “them” into patriotism.
Simple rule for politicians of all creeds: Be careful what you say. Someone might actually believe you.
Contact James Krohe Jr. at firstname.lastname@example.org.