Tucson: An Eye for an Eye Blinds All
By Al Giordano
"Too often we honor swagger and bluster and wielders of force; too often we excuse those who are willing to build their own lives on the shattered dreams of others. Some Americans who preach nonviolence abroad fail to practice it here at home. Some who accuse others of inciting riots have by their own conduct invited them. ..
"Some look for scapegoats, others look for conspiracies, but this much is clear: violence breeds violence, repression brings retaliation, and only a cleansing of our whole society can remove this sickness from our soul.”
- Robert F. Kennedy, April 5, 1968
He spoke those words a day after Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, two months and one day prior to his own death from an assassin’s bullet.
Forty-three years later, little has changed in the essence of the American character, except that technology, and in particular, media, have ramped up the echo chamber that takes a violent act in one corner (Memphis, Los Angeles, Tucson) and brings such tragedies and traumas at higher speed and reverberation to every TV room, every workplace, every school, every home, and to the inner dialogue of every lone individual seated at a computer screen or listening to the car radio or consulting his and her mobile device from a million points on the GPS map.
Previous, more intimate, ways of processing national traumas – a conversation with a loved one, a hug for a confused child, the act of stepping out into the evening for a breath of fresh air, a knock on a neighbor's door, a phone call to a confidante, or the rush to a bathroom, nauseous – increasingly have given way to more mechanized and automated reactions. Today, instead or reaching out for physical and verbal human contact, so many of us metaphorically shoot our tears or vomit all over Twitter, Facebook, blogs and online comments sections, like a message in a bottle from a desert island, seeking some kind of response or assurance.
Having been a child during the Kennedy and King assassinations, an adult during that of Lennon and the attempt on Reagan, having reported the Oklahoma courthouse bombing of April 1995 and its political consequences (which similarly came after Republicans had taken the US House of Representatives, and echoes perhaps the loudest among past traumas regurgitating themselves today) and, of course, that freshest of national traumas, the events of September 11, 2001 – a date when a child was born only to be gunned down in a Safeway supermarket in Arizona on January 8, 2011 – I, like so many of you, have lived these and other similar histories.
Honestly, I can’t say that I’ve been very proud to be an American, or a liberal (or a progressive, or whatever the word-du-jour is for a gringo that says he is opposed to the right wing) in the past 48 hours. And that’s because what I’ve mainly heard from so many who describe themselves as of the “left” since the Arizona shooting reminds too perfectly of the reaction of the “right” to the events of September 11, 2001, and, precisely, of Bush White House press secretary Ari Fleisher’s infamous scoldings at that moment that, quote, “There are reminders to all Americans that they need to watch what they say, watch what they do. This is not a time for remarks like that. There never is.”
(Fleischer was responding to cable TV comedian-turned-pundit Bill Maher’s critique of mechanized technologies of war, although nobody remembers that as much as we remember Fleischer’s official response.)
Back then – only a decade ago – it was the American right that seized upon the traumas caused by the 9/11 attacks to demonize, intimidate, silence and attempt to censor those they perceived as rivals: All of Islam, Iraq in particular, and, at home, anyone who would openly disagree their own ideologies and dogmas, especially liberals or those uncomfortable with war. Leaders of the religious right went so far as to blame the events of 9/11 on abortion and sexual promiscuity, and so many others tossed their own “pet issues” into the mix. When trauma turns to fear, the masses are so easily manipulated, as every aspiring tyrant of any ideology has always known. The political environment created during the Bush administration (and its willing lackeys in the commercial media like the disgraced Judith Miller, then of the New York Times, manufacturing false “evidence” of “weapons of mass destruction” in Iraq) led to two wars and multiplied the human suffering and death toll from thousands to millions because in an age of advanced technology the axiom of “an eye for an eye” quickly leads to “a thousand eyes for an eye.”
Much ado has been made in recent hours about Sarah Palin’s map that expressly “targeted” Arizona US Rep. Gabrielle Giffords’ district, and others, with graphic gun sights, and also of Palin’s (and others’) ham-handed attempts to “scrub” her own images and statements from the Internet, as well as similar use of lock-and-load ballistic language by Republicans, including by the 2010 campaign rival of Giffords who, contrary to the initial hurried media reports, still lives (for now) after a bullet went through her brain on Saturday. And, yes, all such propaganda was and is stupid and reckless, bad speech that can only be countered by good speech.
And certainly there is truth to the statement by Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik after Saturday’s shooting in his county: “I'd just like to say that when you look at unbalanced people, how they are—how they respond to the vitriol that comes out of certain mouths, about tearing down the government, the anger, the hatred, the bigotry that goes on in this country is getting to be outrageous. And unfortunately, Arizona, I think, has become sort of the capital. We have become the Mecca for prejudice and bigotry.”
And yet the existence of good and decent Arizonans like Sheriff Dupnik, like Congresswoman Giffords, like the heroic intern Daniel Hernández and others at the scene of the crime who saved her life and subdued the shooter, also cuts against liberal bigotries and prejudices that arise when the word “Arizona” rings like Pavlov’s bell and liberal dogs begin to salivate so smugly that they are superior to conservative canines. The self-satisfied belief by so many coastal and urbane and “educated” Americans that they are superior to other countrymen and women not like them has been pricked once again by human events.
But if I had a nickel for every Facebook status update I’ve seen in the past two days directly calling Palin the “assassin” and saying, without a hint of nuance or irony, that “hate speech” caused the violence in Tucson, I might be able to buy Zuckerberg out and put the entire social network out of its misery. To this came the predictable calls to legislate or outlaw said “hate speech,” like that of US Rep. Bob Brady (D-Pennsylvania) who is getting media attention by announcing he’ll introduce legislation “making it a federal crime to threaten or incite violence against a member of Congress or a federal official.” (Interestingly, when Hugo Chávez backed similar laws in Venezuela, the US media called it an attack on free speech and democracy, which either it is or it isn’t in either country, but it can’t be one thing in Venezuela and a different thing in the United States, can it? How about, say, in Iran, where dissidents by the thousands shout “death to the dictator” from rooftops at nightfall? Is that "hate speech" that the State is justified to punish?)
Of course, the delicate matter of who decides what constitutes a threat or incitement to violence is the 900-pound gorilla in any such attempt to legislate what can or can’t be said. In that sense, Brady and others beating that drum are the 2011 versions of Ari Fleischer of 2001. Please, just look in the mirror: Have the past 48 hours turned you, too, into a "liberal" version of Ari Fleischer?
Jack Shafer at Slate – whose first instincts on matters of speech are almost always the best instincts an American can have – decries, “The awesome stupidity of the calls to tamp down political speech in the wake of the Giffords shooting," in his essay, yesterday, “In Defense of Inflamed Rhetoric”:
“For as long as I've been alive, crosshairs and bull's-eyes have been an accepted part of the graphical lexicon when it comes to political debates. Such "inflammatory" words as targeting, attacking, destroying, blasting, crushing, burying, knee-capping, and others have similarly guided political thought and action. Not once have the use of these images or words tempted me or anybody else I know to kill. I've listened to, read—and even written!—vicious attacks on government without reaching for my gun. I've even gotten angry, for goodness' sake, without coming close to assassinating a politician or a judge…
“Any call to cool ‘inflammatory’ speech is a call to police all speech, and I can't think of anybody in government, politics, business, or the press that I would trust with that power.”
Within weeks of the September 11 tragedy, I wrote similar thoughts in The Nation (“Never Shut Up, New York,” November 5, 2001), pushing back against efforts by the Bush administration and the media to silence dissent, wielding that moment’s trauma as its bludgeon. How heartbreaking to see, today, some of the same people who cheered that defense of speech against right wing efforts advocating to quell it now promote silence and censorship if inflammatory speech comes from the right instead of the left!
The national left-vs.-right political dysfunction in the United States has been on full display since Saturday. It’s so palpable that when Keith Olbermann, on Saturday, offered a nine-minute commentary on MSNBC, eight minutes criticizing the speech of right wingers like Palin, one minute of introspective self-criticism over times his own passions had caused him to say inflammatory things he now says he regrets, and zero minutes criticizing “the left,” that the reaction from many self-proclaimed “left” circles was to accuse him of stating “false moral equivalencies.” The vested interest among many of pinning the alleged homicidal acts of 22-year-old Jared Lee Loughner on Republican politicians and their partisans reveals, I fear, more worrisome impulses among the accusers than among the accused. It is too many "progressives" today, revealing that their sense of politics is no more than another version of "an eye for an eye," the same as when it comes from their conservative adversaries.
While any good newsman or blogger knows that seizing upon a national trauma leads to greater attention, ratings and hit counts, there was no way I was going to write anything here about the tragic events in Arizona on Saturday until enough facts were in to understand who likely did the shooting and; in what context? Political assassination is like a Rorschach print: It brings out the presumptions and prejudices of all of us. If we imagined, in that first moment of learning about the shooting, that it was a “tea party” member, or an anti-immigrant hater behind the trigger, how would that make us any different than others whose heads conjure images of a Mexican or a black man anytime a gun goes off in America? It is at those moments when we come face to face with our own inner cauldrons of bigotry and stereotypes. These should always be learning moments first, and teaching moments only after such introspection.
A couple of days later we know that the first reports were errant: Rep. Giffords is not dead, as originally reported: she’s alive and struggling to survive. Jared Lee Loughner didn’t have an accomplice (some poor innocent cab driver with the bad luck of having dropped Loughner off at the crime scene had his photo posted all over the Internet and TV news for almost 24 hours with the inference that he was sought by the Feds as part of some violent conspiracy). And what of Loughner’s “political” ideas?
I wonder what our interpretation of previous national traumas had been like if Lee Harvey Oswald, James Earl Ray, Sirhan Sirhan, Squeaky Fromme, Mark David Chapman, John Hinkley, Jr. – or even further back in history, say, John Wilkes Booth – or if the 9/11 hijackers had offered YouTube and MySpace or Facebook pages that revealed something of their inner thoughts to the world. (Heck, I don’t discount the possibility that we may have found out one or more of them indeed were patsies to a larger conspiracy, but that is water long over the bridge, impossible to solve at this late date, and not the topic at hand, anyway, so please spare the comments section from those time worn debates.)
Loughner posted his “favorite books” to his YouTube page. Among them he included Mein Kampf (proof that he’s a right winger!) and The Communist Manifesto (oh, wait...), as well as Orwell’s 1984, To Kill a Mockingbird, Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan, among others: something for everyone that wishes to tag a violent act on a political cause to imagine as his ideological inspiration to murder.
As Laura Miller points out:
“By studying Loughner's book list for clues to the political leanings that somehow ‘drove’ him to commit murder, commentators are behaving a lot like crazy people themselves. Paranoids are prone to scouring newspaper articles and the monologues of late-night comedians for imaginary coded messages that confirm their ‘secret knowledge’ about the world. But those coded messages aren't there -- it's just random stuff with no special significance. The truth about mental illness is that it strikes without regard to political affiliation or ideological orientation, and it turns beautiful minds into nonsense factories. We can debate a social order that allows its victims access to firearms and talk about finding better ways to intervene before the minority of mentally disturbed individuals with violent impulses are able to act on those impulses. But trying to find the cause for this disease in politics, ideas or books is just plain nuts.”
So, what, if any, was Loughner’s much sought out “motivation” to unload a Glock full of bullets in a Tucson supermarket Saturday morning?
A childhood friend offered this testimony to Mother Jones magazine, telling the story of how, in 2007 (before he or any of us had heard the name Sarah Palin or of a right wing “tea party”), Loughner attended a public meeting at which Rep. Gifford invited constituents to speak with her about their concerns and issues. What was the heated political issue that burned in Loughner’s gut? Read on, kind reader:
“’He told me that she opened up the floor for questions and he asked a question. The question was, 'What is government if words have no meaning?'’"
“Giffords' answer, whatever it was, didn't satisfy Loughner. ‘He said, 'Can you believe it, they wouldn't answer my question,' and I told him, 'Dude, no one's going to answer that.'’"
There’s no small amount of irony in the deluge of preachy lectures today that “words have meaning” (and therefore, as Fleischer said ten years ago, we should “watch what we say”) when the alleged assassin’s most important question to his Congresswoman was “What is government if words have no meaning?”
According to his friend, Loughner felt he did not get a good answer out of his member of Congress and held a grudge for more than three years. Interestingly, his friend, added:
“After Loughner apparently gave up drugs and booze, ‘his theories got worse… After he quit, he was just off the wall.’"
(So much for the next favorite scapegoat of Americans seeking to attach blame behind a crime.)
The most interesting statement by Loughner’s friend came in his analysis if what, he thought, Loughner was trying to accomplish with an act of spectacular violence:
“He wanted the media to freak out about this whole thing. He wanted exactly what's happening. He wants all of that."
So, if you’ve been freaking out and stoking the media storm, Loughner apparently didn’t kill in vain. You’ve, in a way, vindicated him, become his unwitting accomplice, at least in his confused view of the cosmos. That, according to his friend, was his goal:
"He fucks things up to fuck shit up, there's no rhyme or reason, he wants to watch the world burn. He probably wanted to take everyone out of their monotonous lives: 'Another Saturday, going to go get groceries'—to take people out of these norms that he thought society had trapped us in."
And yet, to the contrary, as with all acts that can be deemed political violence, or violent acts that impact politics whether or not influencing politics was their goal, Saturday’s violence in Arizona did not take people out of their norms, but, rather, firmly calcified existing norms and patterns around them.
And so now, too many liberals and progressives have become the new Ari Fleischers, the new Speech Cops, accusing people who may or may not inspire crimes of being guilty of them (in this case, given the facts now at hand, the suggestion that Loughner killed because he was influenced by some 2010 Republican campaign propaganda fades from credibility as the real facts sink in).
Are some doing it because they’re so shallow and unthinking that they really believe it? Most, I fear, do it cynically out of an attempt to score political points, yet they are the kinds of “points” that score only among the most weak-minded among us, making the accusations pure demagoguery whether of the right or of the left. (From a community organizer's perspective, I ask: What is the strategic goal of pushing this message? What do its proponents realistically think it will accomplish? Do they think it will turn middle America against the GOP? It might scare some, temporarilly, as the Clinton administration's similar propaganda campaign accomplished after the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, but such results, history demonstrates, are short lived and fleeting.)
This is not a defense of Palin and her disgraceful ilk, nor of right wing whackos that go around speaking of “Second Amendment solutions,” nor am I saying that words don’t have consequences.
If I didn’t strongly believe that words cause actions, I wouldn’t bother to write.
I’m also a student of what some scholars call psychohistory, and was very influenced by Lloyd DeMause’s work, The Assassination of Leaders, which very much explains how psychologically disturbed individuals have so regularly throughout history been influenced in their violent acts by the messages and images in the media and elsewhere that feed fantasies of regicide and homicide. (These are not, by the way, "political" messages with ideological or partisan content, but much deeper psychological triggers that go beyond politics, right or left.)
But in a 24/7 media environment in which we are barraged by violent news stories, in which the high ratings go to TV dramas and movies about cops and robbers and serial killers and sex crimes and terrorists, and in which the entire game of “politics” has been turned into a schoolyard spat of “he did it first, so now we’ll hit back,” it seems to me a very slippery slope – one that can quickly backfire on its adherents – to try and pin the Tucson shooting on Republicans and their whacked out violent images and words.
Let me conclude by demonstrating how a very similar set of circumstances could have just as easily turned against “the left” (more often, these kinds of events do) as it turns against “the right” today:
Remember when, as a presidential candidate in June 2008, after he became the presumptive Democratic nominee, Barack Obama said, of the Republicans, said, ““If they bring a knife to the fight, we bring a gun”?
What if, shortly after that, a Jared Lee Loughner type had gunned down a Republican member of Congress, along with constituents, a federal judge, a child born on September 11, 2001 and others in a Safeway supermarket somewhere in America? Who would be scrubbing their websites then? And which side would be making the over-the-top accusations of which political faction was somehow responsible for that tragedy?
Just because “they” do it, does not mean “we” advance our cause by doing the same. To the contrary, “we” (I put the word in quotation marks because I really don’t consider myself part of those who are saying “we” at this moment) are fueling the national dysfunction by behaving like “them.” And it is that national dysfunction that breeds insanity and violence from the synergy and dynamics afoot between “right” and “left” in their media-fueled dance steps, more than either side would be able to do it alone.
Finally, I’ve also observed in recent days that some of the loudest partisan yelling against Republicans over the Tucson tragedy has come from that same sector of self-proclaimed “progressives” that just last week (and likely, next week, too) would post Facebook updates along the lines of “Obama = Bush” and utilize “inflammatory” language (as is their right) against the US president and his policies. Yet, imagine how Saturday’s violent events would have played out had, say, John Ashcroft been Attorney General at this moment instead of Eric Holder? At least now we’ll probably get an accurate accounting of the facts as federal law enforcement authorities find them.
But in this tit-for-tat, in the he said-she said, ratings-charged media world of accusations and counter-accusations, self promoters, opportunists, Chicken Littles, manipulators and manipulated, somebody has to step forward and ring the bell – just as Robert Kennedy did 42 years ago after the King assassination – to point out the obvious: There is a deeper societal sickness underlying these events, and the media (and social media) responses to them. Has so little really changed since 1968?
And I would make an educated guess that the person who will step forward and seek out our better selves to make a better sense of this terrible act of violence will likely be that very same President Barack Obama. But unlike the screamers (the manipulators and manipulated, both), he’ll wait until sufficient facts are in, as I have done here, before rushing to speak about it. In that sense, I still identify more with him as a person – as critical as I’ve been and remain of many of his policies – than I do with some “activists” and “progressives” whose mouths and keypads today make me shudder with the memory of Ari Fleischer and the Speech Cops of 2001.
Oh, no, I’m not making a case of “false moral equivalency.” To the contrary, I’m saying that the voices of blame and scapegoating coming from “our” side this weekend have been more hypocritical, from people who ought to know better, and therefore morally worse. If we don’t expect better from our own selves, what moral high ground can we possibly ever claim? And what is the strategy behind it anyway? Is it to intimidate and censor political adversaries, Ari Fleischer style? Or is it just to vent any old thing on a public stage to deal with the trauma of the moment? Go ahead and vent. But if there's not a strategy behind it that really works beyond temporary blips in the polling data, it's just feeding the dysfunction, and bringing the next violent and traumatic act in this eye-for-an-eye drama series one step closer.