I was getting ready to watch some football on Saturday afternoon. It was Wild Card weekend; the opening round of the playoffs of my favorite sport. I was doing a quick browse of the web after playing some Madden football on my PS3 shortly after 3:30pm because I thought the first game started at 3:30pm, but found out it actually started at 4:30pm. While on Facebook, I noticed a link that one of my friends had listed quoting a congresswoman’s twitter feed an hour before she got shot. This confused me, so I switched over to the news which showed that Gabrielle Giffords, Representative from Arizona, had been shot in the head at point blank range, her condition was unknown, and that several other people were wounded or dead. Instead of settling in for a full evening of football, my attention was divided for most of the rest of the day between an uneasy mix of sobering news and football action.
As information began to trickle out over the course of the next few hours, I was fascinated with the minutiae of the details coming out. The first reports of the suspect’s name were announced, which led to a Google search of his name. I most of what I found was news sites and discussion forums where his name was listed. I checked to see if the guy was on Facebook. I even went onto Myspace, a site I hadn’t been to in at least a year when I heard the news talking about his Myspace page (that had been almost immediately shut down). Then there was talk of YouTube videos; which I quickly searched for and found (and far more easily than anything else I was searching for.
During this entire time I was also watching the news for updates on Giffords and other victims, details of the shooting, and reactions of people (friends and friends of friends on Facebook , public statements by public officials, public statements by people in the public eye, and some bloggers, particularly Andrew Sullivan’s live-blogging). A lot of people, myself included, were trying to understand what was going on, why this woman was targeted. Particularly, people were debating whether or not it was an overtly political action on the part of the suspect. Almost immediately, there was information out there about her opponent in the last election, a Iraq vet, having campaign pictures of himself holding a gun and using militarized language in his campaign fliers (“Get on target for victory in November. Help remove Gabrielle Giffords from office. Shoot a fully automatic M16 with Jesse Kelly.”). Almost immediately, there were examples of pictures on Sarah Palin’s website (which were hastily removed) of gun sights on a U.S. map indicating congressional districts and Democrats in those districts to be targeted for removal in the next election because they had voted in favor of the health care bill (I have also read that Democrat websites had similar pictures online in 2007). Almost immediately, the trendy words of the day became “rhetoric” “vitriol” and “tone”.
And, sadly, even though people were saying that vitriol in the political rhetoric needed to be toned down, almost immediately both sides of the political aisle were doing their best to inoculate themselves of any responsibility and place the blame at the feet of the other party. Depending on who you read or watch or listen to, the suspect was either a crazy who was swayed by the inflamed talk of the Tea Party movement, or that he was a crazy liberal extremist who smoked pot and read Mein Kampf and the Communist Manifesto (two books that would never be found on the shelf of a true Tea Partier). This is something that will continue to play out over the next few days and weeks. Because too many people in positions of power and influence in this country don’t just see this event over the weekend as a tragedy; they also see opportunity. Opportunity to bury their opponents and gain the upper hand in a back and forth fight for control of this country, that, in reality, ebbs and flows constantly anyway. In my eyes, that makes it a bigger national tragedy, because events like this lift up a big mirror to the national face, and I don’t like what I’m seeing in the reflection.
It is simplistic to say that this act perpetrated by this suspect was without any political underpinning whatsoever. An assassination, by definition, is an attempt on someone’s life who is in the public eye precisely because of their stature and because they are involved in politics. You cannot separate the two entirely. But I think it is also an oversimplification to say that a political ideology or motive was the driving force behind what this suspect did.
There is a lot of speculation as to what his motives were in attempting to take this woman’s life, and in actually taking the lives of several others, including a federal judge and a nine year-old girl. But the biggest single factor in all of it was availability and opportunity. Politically, Rep. Giffords is not considered an extreme left-wing Democrat; instead being grouped in with a group of moderate Democrats known as Blue Dogs. She deviates far from the party line on the issue of border control and immigration (I would point out here that is was most shameful of Fox News when details of the shooting were still murky to try to subtly suggest that the shooting could have had something to do with her stance on immigration and wonder aloud if it had any connection to the story reported earlier in the day of 14 decapitated heads being found in Mexico). I don’t know how close her re-election was in November, but if the shooters major motive for shooting a Representative was because of politics, he could have found someone far more to the extreme that he disagreed with, I am sure, in some other part of the country. The major reason that she was the target was because she represented his district, she was making herself available to the public, and the opportunity to get her was there for him.
However, while means and availability were the overriding factors in making her the target, there is also plenty of room to be critical of politicians and pundits in the media who trade in the currency of demagoguery and demonizing their opponents. And again, it is utterly shameful for anyone on either side of the political spectrum in the country to try and exploit this situation for gain. Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin, and many others in the Tea Party movement should be criticized for the kind of rhetoric that they have invoked in the past few years. But so should Keith Olbermann, who has a running “Worst Person in the World” segment on his show. It is amazing to me how sanctimonious some people on TV and the internet are about how things need to change and be toned down and scaled back, and then ripping the other side for how vile and disgusting their tactics are. They’re talking out of both sides of their mouths. One comment I read online compared Tea Party members to pedophiles in black vans with tinted windows. How exactly does that help anything?
Drudgereport.com had link to a comment that Barak Obama made back during his campaign that if Republicans brought a knife to the fight, then Democrats had to bring a gun. And while it would be easy to say that such a quote is not much different than some of the things Palin or Beck have said, it is also cheap, and I’m not going to go in that direction. Instead, I think it is a very telling quote about the climate of politics that both sides have fomented. Then-candidate Obama was quoting from The Untouchables, when Sean Connery’s character Malone asks Kevin Costner’s Elliot Ness what he is prepared to do to win. And Connery tells him, “They pull a knife, you pull a gun! He sends one of yours to the hospital, you send one of his to the morgue!” That is what passes for politics today with the “Gotcha!” mentality and the 24-hour news cycles. Republicans do something and then Democrats top it. Then Republicans come back and go over the top on them. And it keeps escalating and escalating until the stakes are so ridiculously high that neither side can afford to lose or else it is viewed as the end of the world. It has to change. Unfortunately it seems to take big tragedies like this to point this out to us. And things change for a while, and then people forget, move on, and get charged up about the latest political news story du jour. One talking point I read was that a liberal pundit said he would be willing to change his tone if Republicans concede that they don’t have a monopoly on loving America. That is all well and good, but people should keep in mind that one party does not have a monopoly on vile, hateful rhetoric, either. There are plenty guilty on both sides when it comes to stirring the pot and vilifying the other side.
We also need to keep in mind, that this suspect is, by all accounts, unhinged to say the least. As of now, he has not said anything to authorities about his reasons and motives for why he did what he did. Even if he does ever speak, it might not be logical or coherent in thought. Based on what I read from his YouTube clips, the man does not seem to have a firm grasp on reality. I’ve seen some people on TV and the internet speculate as to whether he is mentally unstable, and, if so, what that instability might be. I thought it was a keen observation that someone made that his list of favorite books (not just Mein Kampf and The Communist Manifesto, but Animal Farm, Brave New World, Alice in Wonderland, etc) is rather eclectic and an impressive, but the pervading theme of nearly all of them is that they deal with perception of reality being controlled by higher powers, changing the reality around you, and the possibility of alternate realities.
He goes on and on at points about the government using mind control on the country through grammar. He claims that only 5% of the people in his district are literate and that he studies grammar and language, yet his grammar is poor at best, using “you’re” when he should be using “your” or writing “implying” when he means “employing” or “conscience dreaming” when he means “conscious dreaming”. There are rants about creating new currency, being the mind-controller, and rejecting God. The best I can make of it is that of someone taking two or three tidbits from various philosophies he’s come into contact with that are beyond his mental capabilities to fully understand, and tried to take these disparate parts and mold them into something for himself that he thinks sounds profound and deep. Based on everything I have read and seen about the suspect, he does not sound like the type of person that will easily fit into the ideology of either political party.
So, with all of that said, where do we go from here? What changes? What is to be done? People on both sides of the political aisle will dig in and try to win on talking points while mentioning how tragic it all is. Attempts at legislation on gun ownership will be made. There will be the usual hand-wringing and self-righteousness from talking heads on cable news. But real change in Washington is not going to come until the rest of America decides that this is unacceptable and needs to change. We need to stop lending our ears to people who spew this stuff and charge things up and are in the business of escalating. These people have a voice because there is a market for it. And that market has moved more and more into the mainstream of political discourse. And I think politicians will only continue to pay lip service to these kinds of tragedies or continue to talk out of both sides of their mouths about them, even when it is one of their own that is attacked.
I think a tangible thing we can do is to curtail the ability of mentally unstable people from getting their hands on guns. It seems like this suspect fell through the cracks on multiple levels (high school, the military, community college, etc.). It will probably mean more surveillance and diligence on the part of authorities. I’m not sure how exactly that manifests itself. But guns in the hands of responsible, sane people, is not a problem and should not be brought under scrutiny.
I think another tangible thing that can be done is to increase the level of security for people in public office. I hope that people do not shy away from the public spectrum and that this does not discourage people from seeking public office. I also hope that it doesn’t discourage Representatives and Senators from meeting regularly with their constituencies. The last thing we need right now is for people in Washington to become more insulated from the people they represent.
I also hope this begins to spell the end of some peoples’ sway over the political narrative in this country, that they would be deservedly ridiculed for their overdependence upon propaganda and rhetoric and that we would begin to see a move in this country back to ideas and principles guiding our political parties instead of cult of personality and talking points.
More than anything, though, I hope Gabrielle Giffords and the other people who were injured in this shooting recover and are able to live full lives again. I’ve gone on and on in this space about lambasting both sides for their negligence and only paying lip service to changing the tone in the past. But all of that takes a back seat to the fact that human lives hang in the balance right now. I got a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach watching the news on Saturday. It was made even worse when at one point I read an erroneous report that Rep. Giffords had passed away. I was very relieved that they announced she was critical but stable after surgery and was responding to commands. I was saddened to hear that a federal judge had lost his life, and sickened to hear that one of the victims was a nine year-old girl.
One thing that has been used as a talking point in this country is that people don’t have a respect for life. People against abortion use it, as do people against the death penalty. But when things like this happen, it drives me up a wall that not enough people have a respect for life. It goes beyond abortion or the death penalty. It has to do with any murder, rape, or violent crime. I’ve never been able to wrap my head around the concept that some people think that they have an apparently inherent right to take the life of someone else, sometimes for the most inconsequential of things. Or that their life is more important or valuable than that of the people they kill. It’s something I struggle with in trying to understand humanity. You can debate the reasons for why the conditions have come about for tragedies like this to happen, but until we take the necessary individual steps to change these conditions, in homes and in schools and in how we conduct ourselves publicly and privately, the change will not occur. I hope we do it. Now is not a time for knee-jerk reactions, but a time for introspection.