11 January 2011


Unless you live under a rock, you're likely well aware of the shootings in Tucson, Arizona, which resulted in 20 casualties -- 6 were killed (including U.S. District Court Judge John Roll), and 14 were wounded (including U.S. Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, the would-be assassin's main target). Please see yesterday's post for a description of the assailant, who is in custody.

Public reaction and commentary has fallen into three broad and distinct responses.

  • The shooter was heavily influenced by the increasingly violent flood of words and images from politicians and the media, especially over the two years since the election of Barack Obama to the Presidency.

  • The shootings were the direct result of our nation's permissive gun laws, which allow even the mentally unbalanced to purchase semiautomatic weapons.

  • The incident was an isolated event, the unfortunate culmination of the workings of a deranged mind which many people noticed, but none heeded as a dire warning.

There are those who say that we do not yet know whether the assailant was merely psychotic, or whether he was psychotic and influenced by venomous political rhetoric. As I noted yesterday, there is sufficient overlap in his online and handwritten statements suggest a connection that is more than coincidental. To the extent that this is true, I reject the third category of responses.

As to the second category, as Gail Collins points out in A Right to Bear Glocks?, "America has a long, terrible history of political assassinations and attempts at political assassination. What we did not have until now is a history of political assassinations that took the lives of large numbers of innocent bystanders. The difference is not about the Second Amendment. It's about a technology that the founding fathers could never have imagined .... Giffords represents a pragmatic, interest-balancing form of politics that's out of fashion. But in that spirit, we should be able to find a way to accomodate the strong desire in many parts of the country for easy access to firearms with sane regulation of the kinds of weapons that make it easiest for crazy people to commit mass slaughter. Most politicians won't talk about it because they're afraid of the NRA, whose agenda is driven by the people who sell guns and want the right to sell as many as possible."

Fair enough, as far as it goes. It is undeniably true that per capita, more people are killed by guns in the U.S. than in any developed country. It is also undeniably true that while some guns are designed for either hunting or self-defense, others are designed for mass killing. I would happily register my .45 sidearm and my .22 rifle, since I own them only for target practice and self-defense. Gabrielle Giffords herself owned and carried a handgun for self-defense. However, anyone determined to purchase an illegal weapon, be it a machine gun or a grenade launcher, can find a black market for the purpose. [Glock, by the way, is simply the brand name of one gun manufacturer. It is not a general synonym for semiautomatic or assault weapons. It was the substitution of high capacity 30-round magazines for the standard 10-round magazine which transformed the assailant's Glock pistol into a mass murder weapon.]

So we have the presence of a scattering of deranged minds, and we have the ready availability of weapons capable of killing large numbers of people. Do those two factors alone explain the killings in Tucson? I believe they do not. Timothy Egan in Tombstone Politics, several reporters in A Long History of Tension, Paul Krugman in Climate of Hate, Jill Lepore in What Thomas Jefferson Would Say, and Kevin Baker in The Cost of Thuggish Prattle, all illuminate facets of the same truth -- that there is a direct link between the level of toxicity in public discourse (most of which eminates from the far right, where phrases like "armed and dangerous", "tyranny and armed resistance", and "a Second Amendment solution" are commonplace), and the likelihood that impressionable minds will see that toxicity as permission to translate words into actions.

Not all victims are public figures. In the 1960s, dozens of civil rights workers were murdered as a direct result of hate speech. In 1995, the victims of the bombing of the Federal Building in Oklahoma City was an act of terrorism traceable directly to extreme right wing ideology. The list goes on.

In the 2010s, we face a choice of conscience. We can either dismiss the Arizona massacre as the isolated act of a deranged invididual, or we can take responsibility for our own behavior and hold ourselves and each other to a higher standard of word and deed. The choice is ours. Keith Olbermann had it right. Violence and threats of violence have no place in a free democracy. Free speech and lively debate, yes. Fear and bloodshed, no.

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