Washington is such a small place that it’s little surprise to discover that I know people who were friends with at least one of the people murdered in Tucson yesterday. The attempted assassination of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords during which six people, including a federal judge and a nine-year-old, were murdered is an appalling atrocity that if the shooter weren’t a young, white man would probably be considered an act of domestic terrorism.
Far less appalling than the act but still disconcerting (though hardly surprising) was the rush to pin ultimate responsibility for the murders on someone other than the gunman himself. Toby Harnden has a good post rounding-up some of the attempts to blame this on Fox News and Sarah Palin here. (Ben Smith has a good piece on this in today’s edition of Politico).
So apparently a pretty stupid Sarah Palin poster from last year in which gunsights were slapped over 20 districts carried by John McCain from which the Democratic incumbent had voted for Obamacare, is now to be considered the inspiration for this atrocity. Mrs Palin has some influence, but let’s not get carried away. For what it’s worth – and readers know that I’m hardly her greatest fan – I do not think she is very much more responsible for this abomination than Jodie Foster was for John Hinckley’s attempt to murder Ronald Reagan. In any case, Palin’s poster was only a souped-up version of a campaign trope that both parties have been happy to employ in the past. (That said, Palin Presidential Futures, already worth shorting, took another dive yesterday.)
But the sordid temptations of politics are such that people who argue there’s little sensible connection between Hollywood "violence" and real-world violence now suddenly insist that it just takes a silly poster and plenty of over-heated rhetoric to inspire America’s Top Kooks to come out of the closet, all guns blazing. And of course the reverse is also true: people happy to blame Grand Theft Auto for just about anything now insist there’s no connection at all between the tone of political discourse ("Second Amendment Solutions!") and some nut taking these notions just a little bit too seriously.
Clearly, things are a little more complicated than that. While you cannot legislate for lunatics there’s also little need to give them any encouragement. But the more we learn about Jared Loughner the more it seems probable – at this stage – that he’s the kind of mentally unstable person who neither needed nor took any inspiration from Palin or the Tea Party or anything other than powerful fantasies that were his own creation.
And this too is normal. Political violence of this type is almost definitionally unhinged but it’s striking how rare it turns out to be the case that the perpetrators can be fitted into one neat political profile or another. And even when they can their targets are frequently so at odds with the meaning of their supposed "philosophy" that trying to "make sense" of such matters becomes an even more frustrating task.
Anyway, we may think these are unusually turbulent times, fanned by unusual quantities of cheap and phoney populism, scaremongering and hysteria but this is not in fact the case. ‘Twas ever thus and the 1960s offer a perspective that might be worth looking at if only, despite all the huffing and puffing, to appreciate how calm and at peace America is these days. Remember McKinley and Garfield too, if you want to go still further back. America ain’t tearing itself apart these days, no matter how much Paul Krugman tries to persuade you it must be. The paranoid style has rarely lacked followers and, just as significantly, the centre has also always had a healthy paranoia of its own. Sometimes, as is the case today or in the aftermath of any other act of grim violence, this will seem unusually plausible.
Most of the time, however, the scare stories about a new era of Militiamen or whatever are seriously over-cooked. The temper of these American times – despite what you will read everywhere today and tomorrow – is not unusually rebarbative or even uncommonly obtuse. (What might be said, mind you, is that the level of rhetoric is out of proportion to the stakes involved in the political game these days.)
The fact of the matter is that a country of 300 million people cannot help but be generously larded with oddballs, freaks, paranoids and assorted other nutters. Couple that with the American genius for self-realization and you soon begin to wonder why there isn’t more politically-themed violence than is actually the case.
That’s hardly a comforting thought, not least in the aftermath of this gruesome, shocking really, attack. But while it’s true that the Obama presidency has (unwittingly) licensed any number of kooks to pursue their dreams, it’s hardly the case that American political rhetoric was as genteel as cucumber sandwiches during the George W Bush years either. But this is America, yo.
And it’s not just America either. Among the more trivial, but still annoying, responses to yesterday’s horror was an endless waterfall of Brits (on Twitter) offering patronising platitudes about gun laws and all the rest of it. It is, I suppose, a mark of how completely the issue of gun control has been settled that the discussion this morning careers around the issue of political rhetoric. Fifteen or 25 years ago the argument would have been about guns. The Second Amendment cannot, however, be wished away and nor can the remnants of the Frontier. It is what it is.
But, look, political violence is not restricted to the United States. Ask the Swedes. And it’s only 10 years since Nigel Jones, then a Liberal Democrat MP, was wounded by a samurai-sword wielding maniac who also murdered one of Mr Jones’s aides. Then there was Stephen Timms, the Labour MP stabbed by a lunatic (albeit a muslim lunatic) earlier this year.
There be monsters everywhere and it remains the case that while it may be that the "average person" might be swayed to some extent by passing political fashions these actions are so far from the mainstream that pinning "responsibility" for them on someone else is a fool’s errand since, almost by definition, if it weren’t one thing it would be another and there’s no way of knowing what that thing might be either.
In the aftermath of these affairs you can see why everyone wants there to be some easily-digestible package of blame and responsibility, some unbreakable chain of events that leads clearly and unmistakably from Station A to Station Z with all stops in between properly accounted for. But unfortunately it doesn’t work like that.
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