Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Easy Answers Where None Exist


I've had three days to get my head together. Let's take a run at this.

Almost as soon as the initial events in Tuscon had concluded, before the name of the gunman had been known, one of the very first things circulated online was the now-familiar crosshair map. 20 districts that Sarah Palin wanted for the Republicans, all with crosshairs over them. Gabrielle Giffords, of course, was one of those 20. This was merely the first salvo in what has become an all-out war, the object of which is for each side to pin Jared Loughner's political affiliation to the other side.

This is a fairly straightforward task if you happen to be a Democrat: after all, given the level of eliminationist rhetoric heard from the Republicans and Tea Party over the course of the past few years, crosshair map included, the fact that it was a Democrat that was indisputably the primary target, and the fact that among Loughner's favorite books was 'Main Kampf', thought to be a hallmark of only the furthest of far-right nuts, as well as favoring the libertarian-proposed gold standard, among other things, it would seem clear.

If you're a Republican, it's a tad more difficult, though you're not without ammo of your own. There has been the scattered rebuttal post of Democrats using violence-related rhetoric, though not nearly as eliminationist, along with eliminationist signs, albeit without the added element of someone actually turning that rhetoric into action. There is also a map of states Democrats were targeting to turn blue in the 2008 Presidential election with bullseyes over the most likely states, though it as well comes as less eliminationist and targets no individual in particular. Just as often, though, the tack taken here is that Loughner was simply a random nut who had no coherent political beliefs of any kind, that it is irresponsible to blame any one side, and that for the Democrats to blame the Republicans is nothing more than the exploitation of a tragedy.

That alternate view, that Loughner is simply crazy, is not without merit, though the Republican version of that argument comes with a fair amount of defensive self-interest attached, a suspicion deepened by the rapid excising of eliminationist rhetoric archived online, and one of Palin's staff rebranding the crosshairs on the map as "surveyor's marks". In addition, alongside Mein Kampf on Loughner's reading list is the Communist Manifesto, the equivalent left-wing nutball hallmark.

There is a Democratic he's-just-crazy argument as well, though this argument is largely concentrated in the most thoughtful corners of the party. This argument is steeped in a well-established history of mental illness among a large segment of assassins and attempted assassins. It largely comes without the stipulation that no one party should be blamed, replacing the area of concern with mental illnesses or gun control or, most commonly among all stripes of the party, the general tone of political discourse in America. It may not have led Loughner all the way down his path, but it might have pushed him over the edge.

That last sentiment is about where I fall. True. Loughner's hatred of Giffords began in 2007, when she failed to address to his satisfaction a very oddball question, and the spike in eliminationist rhetoric came in 2008. And all one need really do is look at his mugshot, gaze into his eyes, to see that we are dealing with a very disturbed individual. But at the same time, you can't really call him completely insane. Not legally, at least. An insane person needs, under current law, to not know the difference between right and wrong. The fact that, for example, Loughner is being uncooperative with police, is not saying a word to them while previously he was quite talkative, suggests that he doesn't want to give the cops something to use against him, or at the very least, the thought is going through his mind that this is a very different situation than normal and that he really shouldn't be talking about what he just did. That in turn suggests that even if he didn't think what he did was wrong, someone else would beg to differ. That's all it takes to be legally able to distinguish between right and wrong, which makes you sane and able to be charged as such.

I cannot, in any case, simply dismiss Loughner as an indecipherable nut and be done with it. The ENIGMA code was indecipherable too, until you cracked it. It took a lot of work, a lot of big brains working on a big problem, but the indecipherable became decipherable. Whatever ended up running through Loughner's head came from somewhere. We've already determined, for example, where his hatred for Giffords came from. If we've figured out one piece of the Loughner puzzle, we can figure out others.

Let's go back to that book list. In addition to Mein Kampf and the Communist Manifesto, there is also a variety of books from any and all parts of the political spectrum, as well as the apolitical. The list consists of: Animal Farm, Brave New World, The Wizard Of Oz, Aesop's Fables, The Odyssey, Alice Adventures Into Wonderland, Fahrenheit 451, Peter Pan, To Kill A Mockingbird, We The Living, The Phantom Tollbooth, One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest, Pulp, Through The Looking Glass, The Communist Manifesto, Siddhartha, The Old Man And The Sea, Gulliver's Travels, Mein Kampf, The Republic, and Meno.

Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center does see a more generic anti-government theme running through the books, and I can concur with that assessment. That doesn't help or hurt any one side- remember, Congress is currently split- but merely says that he doesn't like 'the government'. It doesn't blame any one side in particular, but hurts everyone all the same. That may be reading too much into the list, but one must remember that answers aren't always easy. They're not always black and white. Sometimes the smoking gun simply does not exist, and truth must be found in a long, slow grind of piecing together bit after bit after bit, hoping, in the absence of any clearly-visible moment of completion, that all the bits will one day resemble something recognizable.

Whatever Loughner's beliefs are, or however strong or weak his grip on reality, or however much or little violent rhetoric played a part or even who used more of it, it surely cannot have helped matters. I'm absolutely down with using this incident, this... 'opportunity', as it's been called in some circles (what a strange place to use that word), to do something about mental illness and gun control. These are both fields that really haven't gotten the attention they deserve, and in gun control particularly, everyone is simply too scared of the NRA to think anything is capable of being done, and so usually they don't even try. ('Usually' does not, however, apply here, as several pieces of gun control legislation have been introduced.)

Besides, even if it had absolutely nothing to do with the shooting, even if Loughner's head turns out to be telling him that his cheese is made of teeth, a national moment of reflection on the state of our political discourse is, I think, a good thing. If that is the ultimate lesson that America at large takes from this discussion- that maybe not using eliminationist rhetoric could prevent someone from actually committing eliminationist acts- I for one am willing to let that be the lesson. Does it really matter if it was actually the cause? We've been decrying the tone of discussion anyway.

If the lesson learned is about mental health issues, great. If the lesson learned is about gun control, great. If the lesson is about the tone of political rhetoric, that words have consequences, great. If the lesson learned is a combination of the three, outstanding.

But let there be a lesson learned. Let us not let the six people killed by this tragedy die for nothing.

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