It’s the easiest thing in the world to be well reasoned and rational when the reasoned, rational argument happens to fit your own prejudices. It’s quite another thing to use reason to support an argument that you personally find uncomfortable.
The last few days have been very uncomfortable.
A man in Arizona (I won’t name him) shot a congresswoman, a judge, a kid and others. It’s a horrible, unspeakable tragedy.
And, like all other horrible, unspeakable tragedies like this, people rush to find the cause, the explanation, the reason. Depending on the circumstances blame is invariably placed on whatever pop culture the shooter might have enjoyed – Grand Theft Auto III, Marilyn Manson, The Beatles. Sometimes the blame is placed on The Media for their morbid glamorisation of other such killers. Sometimes it’s blamed on Gun Control, or lack of.
This time it is “The Toxic Violent Rhetoric of Politics” that’s to blame. Glenn Beck. Sarah Palin. They’ve created this culture. They’re to blame.
Except, of course, that’s unsupportable as a basic fact: All other Americans have been exposed to the exact same ‘violent rhetoric’ without literally taking up arms against their local politicians. And, we should remember, the shooter didn’t just kill political targets. He went on a killing spree at a town hall meeting, indiscriminately killing Democrats, Republicans, Swing voters and children.
The question we normally ask, “What makes people go on killing sprees?” has been replaced, this time, with, “what can we do about the ‘violent rhetoric’ in America?” and I despair, wondering how it came to be that this comfortable, easy explanation has been swallowed as fact so easily. We literally know nothing. Nothing. Anyone who tries to tell you what caused this tragedy not shrugging their shoulders and saying, “I don’t know” is making stuff up or echoing the opinions of others. It’s possibly only one guy that really knows – and even that’s not certain. “It was an act of Terrorism” explains what it was, but not the why.
As a nod to more rational thinking, some asking this question freely admit that Sarah Palin “didn’t actually pull the trigger” and then follow it up with a smug sounding “but”.
Yet, behind this story, there’s the seed of something else that is genuinely alarming. The rush to blame Palin and Beck for this travesty is not, in my opinion, the result of political opportunism or an organised effort to attack Sarah Palin, even if it looks like that. Even I’m not that cynical. I also think that many otherwise liberal minded and rational people are incapable of telling the difference between a mass murderer and a stereotype of a gun toting Tea Party member.
And herein lies the problem. A lot of people, quite understandably, are scared by the implications of someone being murdered for their political beliefs (even if the other victims of the shooter were murdered for simply being in proximity to someone with known political beliefs). There are real people who are genuinely scared that the bitter, twisted rhetoric that passes for political discourse in the States is turning into something that means people are going to end up dead.
They, themselves, are restrained. They understand that it’s just words, that it’s all part of the stupid game of politics. There’s no way they’d be talked into shooting a Republican, or committing some other atrocity by violent rhetoric.
But that’s the Democrats, the Liberals. They’re sensible and mature, right? But the Republicans, the Tea Party lot? They’re kind of backwards. Stupid. Possibly inbred. Poor hicks with nothing but guns and hate. You can’t trust them to understand it’s just words, that they’re not meant to literally put Democrats to death.
For Democratic politicians, the fear must be so much worse. What if they’re next? What if, in every decision they take, they’re constantly thinking about the possibility of violent reprisals from republican voters? What if they have to shut themselves away from the public behind fortress walls, afraid of facing the very people they’re supposed to represent?
But the fact that people can actually believe that Palin and Beck’s rhetoric could have turned an ordinary GOP voter into a killer is a sign that the dehumanisation of rival tribes is not limited exclusively to Republicans. The hate, the fear, the distrust – the feeling, it seems, is mutual. This sense of desperation to tone down the rhetoric has not sprung out of no-where. This idea that the rhetoric is to blame is feeding on pre-existing fears.
It’s somewhat comforting to imagine that if everyone decides that the rhetoric was to blame and things change as a result then, perhaps, something good might come out of a senseless act of terrorism. Instead what’s happening is that normal, rational people who’d laugh at any suggestion that Grand Theft Auto causes killing sprees are quite willing to accept, without any real evidence at all, that the guy went on a killing spree because of a tasteless-in-hindsight website, or brain-numbing slogans like, “Don’t retreat! Reload!”?
A collective knee jerks, and a finger points squarely in exactly the same direction it always points: The Enemy. Them.