Monday, January 10, 2011

a long history and a long future

Two salient points on the horrific assassination of Judge John M. Roll and attempted assassination of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords:
  • This event was the inevitable fruit of the politics of rage that have been employed by both political sides (but more prevalently the right) in this country;
  • Violence permeates American politics -- indeed it lies at our very genesis.
Everyone is hungry for a quick villain to blame, but the truth is that the Congresswoman was a casualty of our lack of imagination. In the NYTimes, Matt Bai's otherwise excellent thumbnail of this moment and its violent antecedents betrays a need on the part of Americans for narrative and clearly marked characters; after a very even-handed recap of the past year, and a hat-tip to the bubbling violence of half a century ago, he nevertheless closes with the thought that this shooting "will either be the tragedy that brought us back from the brink, or the first in a series of gruesome memories to come," despite his proving just a few lines before that violence in American politics is a cycle that never really ends.

A further point nestled in Bai's analysis is that without this incident, Americans can't see the connection between rhetoric and action, even though such actions litter our past. Tragically, someone had to be assassinated for our current vituperative collective discourse to be paused -- and possibly only that. It wasn't enough that someone might take violent action in response to violent rhetoric -- action can only be taken once someone did. (Of course, today's talk radio programs will show if anything changes at all.)

But on another tack entirely, do we expect better? Do we expect more from a state where ethnic studies were declared illegal? Where those with the wrong color skin are expected to carry documentation at all times to prove their citizenship status? While the denigration of the national debate reduced a human being to a set of crosshairs on a map, in the interest of simple solutions to complex problems, the state itself restricted political and educational discourse to a medieval level. Why isn't violence the only option in this climate? What other alternatives are there?

Sounding a note that in any other context would reek of unjustified American exceptionalism -- except that in this case it is justified -- former Supreme Court Justice (and Arizona resident) Sandra Day O’Connor said that
it sounds like something that might happen in some place like Afghanistan [...] it shouldn’t happen in Tucson, Ariz., or anyplace else in the United States.”
In other countries, the identities of judges are kept anonymous, because the administration of justice often puts the lives of families and the judges themselves in danger. We like to think that we're different, but the assassination of public figures is a fact of life that lies not far from our reality with two centuries of democracy, or a nation with only one election under its belt.

We celebrate the lack of tanks on the streets on inauguration day -- and the lack of a police riot when the President's motorcade is hit by debris -- not because we only believe that to be exceptional, but because  it is.

Early on in the hours following the judge's assassination, experts filling airtime as cable news networks scrambled for updates quickly labeled the shooter a lone madman. It's essential for our self-image that the extremists are immediately disowned as mad -- beyond the pale. Our need to put this act beyond the realm of possibility -- in his statement, the President called it "unthinkable," despite the fact that it had happened, and that we were all thinking about it -- makes us make strange twists of logic. While describing the gunman as a loner and alienated, it has nevertheless been ascertained that he tried to enlist in the armed services:
A military official said Sunday that Mr. Loughner had failed a drug screening when he tried to enlist in the Army.
Although this might be a far more damning indictment of how far away from the mainstream we as a society place the armed forces: an alienated lone gunman saw the only two avenues for his violent thoughts armed service or murder. (Giffords, it's been noted, is the only member of Congress to be married to someone actively serving in the armed forces.)

"Only a lunatic opens fire on a crowd of people at a supermarket, and he doesn’t do it out of a failure to appreciate nuance and metaphor," writes Mediaite's Tommy Christopher -- but he's only half-right. After all, we certainly wouldn't call the American soldiers who fired on Iraqi civilians and Reuters reporters in 2007 insane; they were merely following orders. Barring a Clinton-esque parry over what, precisely, "reload" means, is it that far a stretch to see how Jared Loughner was doing the same?

[image via gawker]

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