It is ironic that I was working on an article about my childhood recollections of growing up in Alabama with George C. Wallace as my Governor when this tragedy in Tucson took place. Seems like an appropriate time to discuss how we; collectively, as Americans, deal with such things.
I was born a couple of months after John Kennedy was assassinated and my parents kept me pretty insulated from Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy’s subsequent murders although I was old enough to see the emotional toll it took on them and other family members. The sixties and early seventies were a transformational time. Useless war, assassinations as a means of gaining power, political malfeasance, etc. The country was evolving.
Thank God for Apollo 11. That was the best thing to come from the sixties. It was a moment of possibility, not defiance. It brought Walter Cronkite to tears, which was pretty tough to do considering the atrocities of the Vietnam War he had to cover. It was a hopeful moment, not one of remorse. My first grade class ground to a halt to watch Neil Armstrong utter those famous words. And the picture of the Earth rising over the moon’s surface seemed to put our petty perspectives into place if only for a moment.
I do remember watching the attempted assasination of George Wallace in 1972. He was running for president at the time. It was assumed that the assailant thought that the idea of a President Wallace was a bad one.
George Wallace was a big political figure in the south. He served multiple terms, largely because his wife ran for and won the seat after he was term limited. He was re-elected after her. I should note that Lurleen B. Wallace was a pretty good politician herself who became Alabama’s first female Governor. George Wallace rose to fame as the Governor opposed to integration of the educational system. His symbolic stance on the steps of the University of Alabama to block the admittance of black students is an historic act of grandstanding. He knew it wouldn’t work but his constituency needed for him to try.
In 1972, Authur Bremer attempted to kill George Wallace during the Presidential campaign. Wallace was left paralyzed and confined to a wheelchair for the remainder of his life. As an elementary school student, I was shocked that my leader would come under attack (I had yet to form my present liberal perspective). This was an attack on me, my family, and my community.
As I grew older and went to college, I realized Wallace was misguided. The south was in its last phase of denial that all men (and women) are created equal.
The violence seemed to subside after that. Ironically, the assassinations seemed to elevate the victims into martyr status (except for Wallace, perhaps). Doctor King’s message reverberated loudly and clearly. The Kennedy message would permeate politics for almost 50 years until Patrick Kennedy steps down this year.
So why the violence? Nate sources a good article from the Atlantic by James Fellows. What’s the motive behind the violence? Is it political? Is it random?
I tried to get to the answer about this when I was in undergraduate school. Specifically, I wanted to know if Sirhan Sirhan had a reason to assassinate Bobby Kennedy. Turns out, nobody really knows. Same for other shootings. John Hinkley’s attempt on Ronald Reagan’s life has to do with a fixation on Jodie Foster. Mark David Chapman appears to have liked the Beatles, just not John Lennon. President McKinley was shot by a disgruntled Polish worker (okay, that may have been politically motivated). The list is extensive. Jonestown, Waco, and now Tucson.
Just what is the motivation behind these killings?
Well, I propose that there is a connection between the rise of these killings and the proliferation of media. I’m not alone, either. After the attack on Rep Giffords, Sheriff Clarence Dupnik responded to the question of senseless violence,
“When you look at unbalanced people, 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,” he said. “And unfortunately, Arizona, I think, has become the capital. We have become the Mecca for prejudice and bigotry.”
I think he’s right. Violence is nothing new. Mass violence is. High school massacres are a recent trend. Columbine, Thurston, Virginia Tech; they all share a commonality. Infamy. If you can’t achieve fame, then infamy will do. Go out in a blaze of glory trumpeted by the media.
This of course is connected to our 24/7 media world. We have more media outlets available than ever. I did a back of the envelope calculation of television shows available to the public. Many of them are crime dramas. I recall back in the sixties and seventies when murder was an anomaly on TV shows. Remember Mannix? Aside from being the first Private eye to have a car phone, he also had an African American assistant. Pretty big in those days. But a murder was a fairly exclusive event. Nowadays, you have to have serial killings for ratings. In my back of the envelope calculation, just by looking at the shows presented on cable these days, the ratio of murders/killings on TV is four times the national average.
But let’s go further. Video games have anesthetized us from feeling any empathy with the victims. In video games we kill things with impunity in our fantasies. We’re further justified in doing so because the game says we are the good guys and suffer no consequences. In most cases, we are rewarded. Bonus points. On to the next level. Kill more bad guys (those who disagree with us). This was eerily bourn out in the Wikileaks ‘Apache’ video of the military attack in Iraq. [Warning: this is a disturbing video]
So, we get 24/7 coverage and if we aren’t good looking enough for fame, just kill a bunch of people we don’t agree with. Hey, it works for Muslim extremists, right? How about midwestern Jesus freaks? Abortion clinic bombers?
Fanaticism in any form is wrong. Violence is no solution for democracy. Violence is totalitarianism. It is a beat down of the will of the majority and we should not stand for that. At the same time, free speech comes with a modicum of responsibility. I understand the anger on the right for the change that is occurring in our society but at the same time, I am alarmed by the rhetoric of violence that is being used. Putting crosshairs on districts that are ‘targeted’ for elimination. Invoking ‘second amendment remedies’ when you are losing a political battle, using fighting words like ‘reload’. Most sane people will see this as just pep rally rhetoric. But some; maybe not-so-sane people, those who feel abandoned or overlooked by society may see it as a call to arms.
Well, there is a price to pay for that mentality. Here she is. A nine year old along with the five other people with irreplacable lives taken by a young gunman with twisted beliefs. Look in her eyes and tell me her life was less important than his method of objecting to the status quo or his second amendment rights. Christina was killed by a confused youth who felt left out. Heck, that’s just being a teen-ager. I don’t pretend to know the motives of the person who gunned down nineteen people at the political rally in Tucson yesterday. And, in fact, no one may ever understand it because if history is any indicator, rationality has little to do with motive.
Here is my point. You are just as accountable with your choice of words in the public media as the gunman who chose to act upon them. With the pulpit comes accountability. Statistics indicates that there will be a person confused, deluded, or coerced into taking physical, violent action against an enemy they don’t understand. The consequences of what we say needs to be kept in consideration because what we say could ignite some to take actions other rational people would not. The pen may indeed be mightier than the sword, but it could be just as deadly as the bullet loaded into the chamber.
To add insult to injury the Westboro
Baptist Church plans to protest the funerals of those killed in the attack. I’m for first amendment rights but, come on: really?
And as you might imagine, Keith Olbermann came to work on Saturday and issued a special comment.
Update: Huffinton Post reporting that a woman snatched the second clip from the gunman allowing time for the two other guys to tackle him.
- Violence as a Political Tool (538refugees.wordpress.com)
- The Cloudy Logic of “Political” Shootings (theatlantic.com)
- Brian Levin, J.D.: Threats Against Congress Rise, But Danger Is Nothing New (huffingtonpost.com)
- Anger and politics a dangerous mix (cnn.com)
- Assassinations are rare — but not unheard of (salon.com)