Monday, January 17, 2011
Tragedy in Tucson: The Fatal Convergence of Politics and Madness
As a blogger who mostly stalks contrasts and synchronicities, this has been quite a week. The attempt by a lone gunman to assassinate a Democratic congresswoman, Gabrielle Giffords, while she was meeting with constituents in a Safeway parking lot in Tucson, instantaneously unleashed predictable and bitter partisan posturing, each side menacing the other with accusations and blame. Was this terrible crime the handiwork of a single "bat-shit crazy" person, as Rush Limbaugh was quick to declare, or had it been torqued by right-wing, excessively violent, anti-government rhetoric? It wasn't long before both political parties were scrambling to control the narrative of what had happened by attributing blame to the other side.
The gunman, Jared Loughner, had already shown warning signs at Pima Community College--of paranoia, jumbled speech, scary outbursts--and believed he was a victim of government mind control, indicating possible psychotic illness. But then, paranoid speeches about government and senseless, inflammatory rhetoric punctuated by scary outbursts festoon the phrase-making of public figures like Sarah Palin, Rush Limbaugh, and Glenn Beck on a regular basis. You could say, as columnist Leonard Pitts did say, that these individuals mainstream a brand of political discourse that is "a national disgrace, hateful, poisonous and coarse," continuously stoking divisions through hatred, lies, and fear.
Palin, however, was quick to proclaim innocence, stating unequivocally that "acts of monstrous criminality stand on their own." and individuals are thus accountable for their own actions. Meanwhile, "irresponsible statements" from critics "incite the very hatred and violence they purport to condemn." Despite her efforts to exonerate herself, it was hard not to draw certain inferences and parallels. Palin's comments, meant to disassociate her brand from any remorse or blame, reeked anew of the the common Tea Party mantra: "Don't Tread on Me," as she ended up threatening her accusers of committing "blood libel."
Speaking, as far as I can tell, for many people, James Tarantino, a student at a local community college in Roanoke, wrote a commentary published in the Roanoke Times, in which he chastised the media for using the event to discredit Sarah Palin and the Tea Party, and to make conservatives look bad. There is no proof, he argued, that current political rhetoric fueled the young man's shooting spree. And of course, he's right: no evidence of such a link has come to light.
But the crucial point here is not whether the killer was (or was not) a proven Sarah Palin-Glenn Beck groupie. The real point is that Giffords herself felt under threat from the "crosshairs" map posted on Sarah Palin's Facebook page, that targeted a list of 20 Democrats running for re-election--with the crosshairs of a gun sight superimposed over their districts--and exhortations elsewhere to her followers to take up arms and "reload," with the suggestion that "if ballots don't work, bullets will." At least three other of the 20 members of Congress on Palin's map had also, like Giffords, been hit with vandalism and death threats.
In March 2010, Giffords openly voiced her disquiet about being "targeted" in an interview on MSNBC: "...we're on Sarah Palin's targeted list, and when people do that, they've gotta realize there are consequences of that action," she commented, as it has turned out, rather presciently. So, is Palin's targeting relevant to any discussion of the shootings? You betcha! given that Giffords considered the map a threat to her safety, and had expressed her fears more than once, both publicly and privately. It is hard to see as totally coincidental the fact that the same Congresswoman who had complained about the recurrent use of gun imagery was subsequently shot through the head while holding a small public rally.
Having gotten this far with my thoughts, I realized I was somehow missing the final clincher. Where, exactly, was I headed with this piece anyway? What was I really trying to say? I had not yet experienced the synchronistic buzz (that "Aha" moment) which usually makes the raison d'etre of what I am writing perfectly clear to me. In short, I still had no punch line pulling it all together.
Yesterday being Sunday, I routinely checked out Frank Rich's column in the New York Times. (A friend of mine insists that Rich and I seem to share an inside track when we analyze things, often coming from the same angle and drawing similar conclusions, completely independently.) This time she was undoubtedly right, because waiting there was the precise punch line I had been looking for. It dropped out of the sky on top of me from Rich's opening headline--the title of his article--which was:
"NO ONE LISTENED TO GABRIELLE GIFFORDS." Will they listen now, I wondered?