Mass Shootings and Politicizing Tragedy

I hate to say it, but I’ve been thinking a lot about Sarah Palin in the past couple of weeks. Why? Well, not because of what(ever) she’s doing these days. But rather, because of something she did last year.

Last year — January 8, 2011 — Jared Loughner walked into a crowd at an event being held by Arizona Representative Gabrielle Giffords, and shot almost two dozen people. The media, in a sensationalist (though not necessarily inaccurate) frenzy, pointed to Palin and her bellicose political rhetoric — her don’t retreat, reload (link is to video) one-liners, and her crosshairs-laden infographics — as worthy of part of the blame. She did not pull the trigger, some figures in the media argued. But she was certainly a part of the context that enabled this to happen.

SarahPAC Target Map
via BoingBoing

Palin, to nobody’s surprise, didn’t like this line of thinking one bit. She went on television — because for some reason, she can do that — and responded with the following words:

Like many, I’ve spent the past few days reflecting on what happened and praying for guidance. After this shocking tragedy, I listened at first puzzled, then with concern, and now with sadness, to the irresponsible statements from people attempting to apportion blame for this terrible event.

President Reagan said, “We must reject the idea that every time a law’s broken, society is guilty rather than the lawbreaker. It is time to restore the American precept that each individual is accountable for his actions.” Acts of monstrous criminality stand on their own. They begin and end with the criminals who commit them, not collectively with all the citizens of a state, not with those who listen to talk radio, not with maps of swing districts used by both sides of the aisle, not with law-abiding citizens who respectfully exercise their First Amendment rights at campaign rallies, not with those who proudly voted in the last election.

I think about Palin’s words because it’s happened again. And again. In the last month, we’ve seen two high-profile mass shootings — the first at the Dark Knight Rises premier in Aurora, Colorado, and the second at a Sikh temple in a suburb of Milwaukee. The argument that Palin made, back, more than a year and a half ago now, is that we must reject the idea that the making of laws — the political process — has anything to do with the breaking of them. And to our great discredit, we seem to have collectively listened to her advice.

Here. I’ll show you what I mean.

After the shootings at the Sikh temple, President Obama had this to say:

Michelle and I were deeply saddened to learn of the shooting that tragically took so many lives in Wisconsin. At this difficult time, the people of Oak Creek must know that the American people have them in our thoughts and prayers, and our hearts go out to the families and friends of those who were killed and wounded. My administration will provide whatever support is necessary to the officials who are responding to this tragic shooting and moving forward with an investigation. As we mourn this loss which took place at a house of worship, we are reminded how much our country has been enriched by Sikhs, who are a part of our broader American family.

And Mitt Romney, in his capacity as the Republican Party’s presumptive nominee to be President, said this:

Ann and I extend our thoughts and prayers to the victims of today’s shooting in Wisconsin. This was a senseless act of violence and a tragedy that should never befall any house of worship. Our hearts are with the victims, their families and the entire Oak Creek Sikh community. We join Americans everywhere in mourning those who lost their lives and in prayer for healing in the difficult days ahead.

Both sentiments are nice, I suppose, in the sense that they seem heartfelt, and in that they offer fairly specific condolences to a community onto which the worst imaginable kind of tragedy has come crashing down. But both are essentially cowardly. Both take the Palin tack, and heed the voices in the media that exhort us not to politicize tragedy. Both run away from anything substantive that could be said about this kind of event and how it might be stopped in the future, not because the public doesn’t want to hear about, say, gun control, but because any reasonable proposition in response implicates the rhetoric of American public life, and the policies that both candidates advocate, as part of the problem.

We are exhorted so strongly not to politicize mass shootings precisely because they are fundamentally political events.

Palin’s relationship with the Arizona shootings provides us with plenty of exemplary material. The voices claiming that her extended metaphor of political campaigns as war (or assassination?) had something to do with Loughner’s violent outburst are right. Whether or not we can draw a straight line between her target map and the shooting is irrelevant. Violent people, like the rest of us, exist in context — in a broader environment that shapes us in infinite and unaccountable ways — and there is no question that Palin’s rhetoric was, directly or indirectly, part of Loughner’s context.

Palin as much as admits this. In her response to the criticism, she falls back not on evidence but on ideology — on an assertion made by Ronald Reagan that, in fact, context is irrelevant to crime. She reflects what seems to be a core Conservative value, that criminal acts are done to society; they are not done in society. That people who commit atrocities like these stand outside the door — beyond the influence of the rhetorical schema that lock us together as an American community. Whatever their origins, they are not “real Americans” (as Palin is so fond of saying), but infiltrators and irrational actors who, for no knowable reason, intend to interrupt discourse with brutality.

The lady, of course, doth protest too much.

But she’s not the only one. As she herself says, neither her martial rhetoric nor her policy positions are unique in the degree to which they create this kind of environment.

In terms of policy: every time a politician of either side gives in to the notion that longer prison sentences equal being tough on crime — they are creating the context for violence. Any time a politician proposes (or worse, implements) cuts to mental health services — they are creating the context for violence.* Legislation like the Patriot Act that creates the perception of singling out one group of people over another as suspicious, programs (Federal, state, or local) that militarize the police, policy that expands the budget for war machines over poverty — these all serve to create the context for violence.**

In terms of our rhetoric, the line is even less oblique. To see the context for violence begin to condense, one needs only look to the NRA’s sacrosanct misreading of of the Second Amendment. The actual Second Amendment reads that Americans have the right to a well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State — and it is within that frame that the right to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed. But the NRA patently ignores that first part — especially the bit about regulation — in favor of a half-reading that demands that any American, in any context, has the right to whatever kind of deadly weapon they choose, no matter what.

Likewise, to see the context of violence, one needs only look toward politicians’ responses to the power of said NRA. When politicians like Mitt Romney have to pretend that they are lifelong devotees of gunplay to get elected, they are creating that context with their words. When the President — from the party that is nominally the party of gun control — has to preface any remarks on the subject like this:

I, like most Americans, believe that the Second Amendment guarantees an individual the right to bear arms. And we recognize the traditions of gun ownership that passed on from generation to generation -— that hunting and shooting are part of a cherished national heritage.

Well, I think you know where I’m going.

But the problem is that our — America’s — addiction to violence goes beyond day-to-day policy and day-to-day political rhetoric, and beyond the (pretty fundamental) set of issues that Palin or Romney or the President bring up. We are all taught from our earliest childhoods that the most virtuous thing we can do to express our love for our country, to be patriotic citizens and to gain the admiration of our peers and our leaders, is to be soldiers, to take up arms. And if that’s the case — if violence of one sort or the other is the ultimate expression of fidelity to America and American values — what can we do in the face of that?

So — to come back to Obama and Romney’s words in the aftermath of the Sikh temple attack — this is what makes them cowardly. It is not that I expect them, in one fell swoop, to take up so fundamental an issue as our culture of violent talk and our culture of violent acts. It is not even that I expect, in what amounts to a condolence note, that they will talk about specific policies that can be changed to decrease the likelihood of another of these attacks in another two weeks. What I do expect of them, though, is an acknowledgement that horrific violence has a context into which it is born. The people who do these things — the Jared Loughners and the James Holmeses and the Wade Michael Pages of the world — are not monsters who have materialized from nowhere to menace us at our gates. If they are monsters, they are monsters born of a specific set of political and rhetorical circumstances. And for that, we all have a certain amount of responsibility.

* There is a correlation, though — I suppose — not necessarily a causal relationship, between cuts in state mental health budgets and incidents of mass murder. Also, Loughner and Holmes were definitely identified as mental health risks prior to their respective incidents.
** I recognize that sometimes policies that create a context for violence are, for various reasons, necessary. And yet …