The Giffords Blame Game: Close, But No Cigar

I can't believe it, but sometimes it happens: I actually agree with Sarah Palin and Rush Limbaugh.

Now, I won't claim to be totally surprised by the rhetorical vortex resulting from the shocking events of last weekend. Any time an elected official is attacked, as occurred with the tragic shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and 19 other people in Tucson, AZ, in which six people were killed, it's reasonable to wonder whether or not the attacker had a political motive. But it seems an elementary truth that wondering is not the same as knowing -- that connections that may appear plausible at first glance aren't always real.

In this light, the rush to pin blame for the attempted assassination on political discourse constitutes not only a disgraceful deception by this country's opinion-making class; worse, it is a sly attempt to undermine the lively (and yes, often obnoxious and confrontational) free expression of political opinion that keeps this country alive.

No question, the historical record contains an ugly litany of politically motivated assassinations -- and while these failed (as often as not) to achieve their goals, no one can deny that misguided political passions may play a role when someone attempts to murder a politician. The key word, however, is "may": there are also plenty of examples of people attacking elected officials for reasons having nothing at all to do with politics, or indeed reality.



Take, for example, John Hinckley, who tried to assassinate President Reagan in a bid to somehow impress the actress Jodie Foster. Reagan's political views were incidental to this extra-crazy crusade, and in fact Reagan himself was important only in his importance; Hinckley had previously considered assassinating President Jimmy Carter, hijacking an airliner, and committing suicide in front of Foster to get her attention.

With precedents like Hinckley in mind, I have to question that the honesty, integrity, and competence of pundits and journalists who asserted a political motivation behind the terrible actions of Jared Lee Loughner in Tucson on Saturday, January 8, 2011, without waiting for even circumstantial evidence as to what his reasons might have been. This rush to judgment was especially disgraceful because of the hypocrisy displayed by commentators, who made appeals in the name of "political civility" and "toning down partisan rhetoric" -- while falsely accusing their political opponents of inciting violence, the most serious and damaging allegation one can make in a democracy.

In the hours following the shooting, reporters focused on the most readily available source of information about Loughner -- the content he himself created and posted on social media sites like YouTube and MySpace. And there was, perhaps, some slim basis for trying to interpret this in a political context: his YouTube videos displayed an obsession with "currency," religion, and the government. But fixation hardly qualifies as an ideological position -- and any reasonable observer would steer onto a different track as soon as they actually read what he wrote.

This is what Loughner wrote in a YouTube video titled "Introduction to Mind Control" (omitting some diagrams): If I'm the mind controller then I control the belief and the religion.

- Action - Thought - Location - Food

If you're editing of every belief and religion reaches the final century then the writer for every belief and religion is you.

You're editing of every belief and religion reaches the final century.

Thus, the writer for every belief and religion is you.

You control every - thought, action, and lifestyle - for the person or people as the mind controller.

I'm able to control every belief and religion by being the mind controller!

At this point we have left ideology far, far behind. This kind of unsettling exegesis, with its eerie combination of godlike megalomania and incomprehensible syntax -- "word salad," in psychiatric shorthand -- leaves almost no doubt that Jared Lee Loughner is psychotic in the clinical sense, and very probably schizophrenic.

Now, if you care to waste time drawing these sorts of connections, there is now just as much (meaningless) evidence that Loughner was a leftwing nut job: a high school friend described him as "left wing, quite liberal," and he disdained the Constitution -- the cherished safety blanket of Tea Party folk. Predictably, conservative pundits trotted all these "facts" out in due course, attempting to push the blame for his deranged actions back onto their ideological opponents. But the general slant among opinion-makers was undoubtedly coming from the left against the right.

Even before the Tucson shooter had been identified, the New York Times' resident economist Paul Krugman boldly ventured into political territory with a piece bearing the suitably vague title "Climate of Hate." This was about the most that Krugman's thin, misleading argument could offer. For example, he claimed that Representative Michele Bachmann encouraged constituents to be "armed and dangerous," but the quote was clearly taken out of context, as she was actually talking about informational brochures: "I am going to have materials for people when they leave. I want people in Minnesota armed and dangerous on this issue of the energy tax because we need to fight back."

This "misinterpretation" of Bachmann's statement is reminiscent of the simultaneous attack on former Alaskan governor and woman-about-town Sarah Palin. Palin's confrontational tone and dimwitted malapropisms have made her a favorite media hate figure, but the issue used to link her to the Giffords shooting -- a brochure mailed to members of her PAC, with a map showing Congressional districts controlled by Democrats "targeted" with crosshairs -- is nothing but a bunch of B.S.

I could start with the fact that Loughner probably never received the brochure or saw the map. But the problem runs deeper than that. Like Krugman's malicious misinterpretation of Bachmann, this deliberate misconstruing of a commonly used symbol goes to the flawed heart of the critique: the prevalence in political discourse -- not just in the U.S., but all over the world -- of metaphors for conflict.

The popularity of these metaphors isn't surprising, as conflict imagery makes for vivid, stirring speeches, enlivening what is otherwise (in all honesty) a very dull electoral process. This type of language is used all across the political spectrum, drawing on images from sports, business, and -- yes -- warfare and other types of violent conflict. While it may not be to everyone's liking, violent imagery has been part and parcel of politics at least as far back as the Founding Fathers. From Thomas Jefferson -- who described his rich foes in the early Republic as cannibalistic wild animals and hoped to "crush... the aristocracy of our monied corporations" -- to Elliot Spitzer vowing to steamroll his opponents, these metaphors of combat and destruction reflect the undeniable and unavoidable element of conflict in politics, as well as the strong feelings it produces among partisans, who tend to frame disputes in absolute, existential terms.

Close political contests take place in "battleground states," active political supporters are "troops," losers are "annihilated" at the polls; the WSJ noted that in October the former Democrat Rep. Paul Kanjorski joked about killing a fellow lawmaker on the floor of Congress, and in the lead-up to the November 2010 mid-term elections, President Obama warned Latino voters not to let their "enemies" -- meaning, Republicans -- take control of the legislature. Turning to natural metaphors, losers may be buried by "landslides," burned by "wildfires," or swept away by "tidal waves." Unsurprisingly, history is another rich source of rhetorical ammo.

It's worth noting that Barack Obama, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and indeed probably every president since World War II have all been compared, at one time or another, to Adolf Hitler. It just seems to go with the job, despite the absurd disparity between these mediocre characters and history's most evil person -- and no one ever remarks that these inflammatory comparisons are basically de facto calls for assassination (if Hitler was alive today, working anew on his evil schemes, I would definitely support killing him).

(On a side note, politicians also draw on many other kinds of extreme imagery, in addition to metaphors of violence, which are equally objectionable. For example, it is commonplace to suggest that one's opponent must be crazy -- which is both ridiculous and offensive to people who are actually mentally ill, as it basically equates mental illness with being stupid, misinformed or immoral. But again, no one wastes breath objecting, because everyone accepts that's just how politicians talk.)

And still the argument runs on. Okay, the handwringers concede -- but maybe this incendiary language somehow contributes to an environment in which mentally unbalanced individuals decide to commit terrible crimes. But this misses several absolutely key ethical points.

The first and most important principle is, of course, the imperative never to commit violence, unless it is a matter of self-defense; this needs no explanation. The second: someone like Loughner who is unable to distinguish between a real threat and a paranoid delusion is insane (Loughner seems to have believed that Giffords was out to get him, in some way, on the basis of one interaction at a community meeting in 2007). The third: a sane person, speaking in a relatively reasonable manner, shouldn't be held responsible for potential misinterpretation by a person who is insane. David Berkowitz, a.k.a. The Son of Sam, interpreted canine noises as orders to kill, but do we agree with him in blaming his dog?

Summing up, I freely admit I have some problems with the general tone of political discourse in this country: I agree with many commentators that it could be a good deal more civil, and that this would benefit all Americans. But Sarah Palin mailing a map with target symbols on it, and Michele Bachmann aggressively distributing brochures, and Rush Limbaugh fulminating in his usual dilatory and long-winded fashion -- all of which Loughner probably never saw or heard -- simply cannot be held responsible for the deranged actions of this very troubled young man.

Returning to Krugman's column, the worst part by far was his self-righteous, hypocritical conclusion, pushing blanket responsibility on Republican politicians in general: "So will the Arizona massacre make our discourse less toxic? It's really up to G.O.P. leaders."

No Paul, it's up to you.

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