Monday, January 10, 2011

Half-formed thoughts on political violence

The shooting in Tucson is bizarre for a lot of reasons. The more we find out about the guy who did it, the more it seems like he follows in the footsteps of a long line of political assassins motivated more by isolated delusions than mainstream political divides. But at the same time, it is kind of hard to understand how out of 535 members of congress, the one targeted was a Democratic Congresswoman from Arizona, one who had just narrowly beat a Tea Party candidate in a state where Hispanics now need to be able to show their papers and ethnic studies classes are banned.

I can understand Republican's frustration at the liberal instinct that somehow, they must be connected to this. It really doesn't seem like this guy was a right wing nut. But at the same time, I understand and kind of share the liberal instinct. It makes me mad to hear Rand Paul say "But the weapons don't kill people. It's the individual that killed these people." This particular individual stopped killing people as soon as his weapon needed to be reloaded, and it certainly wasn't me who fought for his right to fire off 30 bullets before someone had the chance to tackle him (ironically, a gay Hispanic intern).* The other side of the liberal argument makes me more uncomfortable...the idea that there's a rhetoric of violence that inspires crazy people to take violent actions. Not too uncomfortable, I do generally subscribe to the idea that there are limits on how much violence is really ok in polite conversation, or even in semi-polite conversation between friends. Not legal limits, of course, but I feel well within my rights to not like someone who peppers their conversation with verbs like curb stomp, especially if they're a public figure. My reasoning for this isn't really that I think it'll produce more violent crazy people though. I mostly worry about the process of desensitization that makes prison rape funny instead of horrifying. So I think the right is wrong about gun control, and wrong about how lightly they joke about "second amendment remedies," (two sides of the same coin really, I look at a handgun and am horrified by it's association with killing, and wish more people felt that way) but I don't really see a way that they caused this, no matter how indirectly.

I think there might be more too it though, and this is where the half formed thoughts come in. Correct me if I'm wrong...but I think it's pretty indisputable that the predominant history of political violence in this country is the history of white supremacy. I guess there's also been class-based political violence with union busting and all of that, but I'm not really sure that competes with the kind of impact that lynchings had. And throughout that history, there were the perpetrators of the violence and then there were the political figures who played off of it, who said "Of course I'm against lynchings, but until southern culture changes, I really don't think desegregation is a good idea." You could argue that the left should be the inheritors of this legacy, since it was Southern Democrats at the time, but it's not the Democrats of today saying "Of course I'm against anti-gay violence, but until military culture changes, I really don't think gays in the military is a good idea."

 It doesn't immediately follow that all of the right's affection for the imagery of violent insurrection against the federal government has white supremacist roots, but there is power associated with being the reasonable face of a barely contained violent element, and it's a source of power that I'm not sure the Republican party is above alluding to. I know for sure that significant portions of the left believe that the right has that power, and that assassination is a political tool that is especially likely to be used against the left....witness the widespread fears that electing Barack Obama would make him a target. I don't think that these are necessarily reasonable fears, but they do have reasonable roots in fairly recent history, and I wonder how much this contributes to peoples' instincts to look for a right wing connection here...and to what extent the Republicans have brought that upon themselves.

*It looks like I got this wrong. The intern was not one of the two men who tackled the shooter, although he may have saved the Congresswoman's life.

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