Sunday 9 January 2011, in Journal
A US representative from Arizona, Gabrielle Giffords, was shot point-blank in the head yesterday, after which the gunman shot indiscriminately into the crowd. From that BBC article:
Sheriff Dupnik said a consuming atmosphere of political vitriol centred on Arizona may have been a factor in the attack. “When you look at unbalanced people, how they respond to the vitriol that comes out of certain mouths about tearing down the government,” he said. “The anger, the hatred, the bigotry that goes on in this country is getting to be outrageous. And unfortunately, Arizona, I think, has become the capital. We have become the Mecca for prejudice and bigotry.”
This anger had spilled into violence before, with Ms Giffords’ office being vandalised last March after she upset Arizona conservatives by supporting Mr Obama’s healthcare reform bill.
A few days ago, an internet acquaintance committed suicide; he had been severely abused from an early age. A week before that, I finished writing my paper for a Masters course titled “Theatre and violence”. We had studied Shakespeare’s “Titus Andronicus”, Sarah Kane’s “Blasted”, Botho Strauß’ “Schändung” (based on “Titus Andronicus”), and Corneille’s “Medea”. In finishing my paper, I was relieved; the course had been interesting and eye-opening, but I was glad to move on from the heart-rending subject matter. Instead, I’m a bit overwhelmed by this last week.
Thankfully, the New York Times published a piece that says much of what I think; much of what many of us think, who have been watching inflammatory rhetoric in the US go far beyond reason. A Turning Point in the Discourse, but in Which Direction?
What’s different about this moment is the emergence of a political culture — on blogs and Twitter and cable television — that so loudly and readily reinforces the dark visions of political extremists, often for profit or political gain. It wasn’t clear Saturday whether the alleged shooter in Tucson was motivated by any real political philosophy or by voices in his head, or perhaps by both. But it’s hard not to think he was at least partly influenced by a debate that often seems to conflate philosophical disagreement with some kind of political Armageddon.
The problem here doesn’t lie with the activists like most of those who populate the Tea Parties, ordinary citizens who are doing what citizens are supposed to do — engaging in a conversation about the direction of the country. Rather, the problem would seem to rest with the political leaders who pander to the margins of the margins, employing whatever words seem likely to win them contributions or TV time, with little regard for the consequences.
For readers who may not be aware of the specifics, Gabrielle Giffords, the woman shot, was one of the targets (designated by crosshairs) on a map from Sarah Palin, called “We’ve diagnosed the problem… help us prescribe the solution.” Giffords is named specifically on the map key, signed by Palin herself. I linked the NYT article before bringing it up for a reason: “Odds are pretty good that neither of these — nor any other isolated bit of imagery — had much to do with the shooting in Tucson. But scrubbing them from the Internet” (which Palin did following the shooting) “couldn’t erase all evidence of the rhetorical recklessness that permeates our political moment.”
When brushed aside as “nothing more than…”, violence begets violence. It’s high time that more people recognize that physical violence is not the only form. Rhetorical and emotional violence also exist; the weakest in society pay for it the most: children, minorities, the mentally ill and unstable. Whether it manifests in suicide, rape, beatings, murder, assassination, war, we all end up feeling the consequences. The cycle can end when violence’s more subtle, subversive forms are recognized and called out for what they are: Wrong. Abusive. Unacceptable. We can do better. More positively, we can encourage respect, tolerance, and recognition that we’re all in life together.