Making Sense of the Senseless
So, the question now is how did this happen? In the wake of the tragic and senseless shooting in Arizona, the urge to make sense of, and create meaning out of the events rises to the surface and quite frankly, troubles the collective consciousness. Within minutes of the shooting, facebook was littered with links reminding me of Palin’s now infamous “targeted districts” map. Coming close on the heels of the words of the Pima county Sheriff, media pundits immediately pointed to the “vitriol” present in contemporary political discourse as - if not a direct motivation of violence – a strong background factor in pushing someone over the edge.
And this is where it gets complicated. The fact of the matter is, I believe, that an incident like this defies an easy explanation. The fear, and sense of unease that the shooting in Arizona evokes is directly proportionate to our inability to integrate the spectacularly disruptive nature of the crime into our collective psyche. Furthermore, I think this explains the immediate desire to attempt to frame the incident in terms of binary oppositional structures. Now, before I lose you to theoretical jargon, let me try and explain.
It’s clear to everyone paying attention that the American political scene has recently suffered from a deterioration of civility. I’m immediately reminded of the outburst during Obama’s State of the Union address. The State of the Union is not meant to be a debate; it is not Prime Minister’s Questions. Of course, besides the halls of Washington themselves, the major site of “vitriol” is the mainstream media, which seems to magnify difference and divisiveness at every turn. While O’Reilly, Beck, Palin and Fox News trade on attacks, bullying and fear-mongering, the so called “liberal” side of the medium is often no better. In fact, the only real call for calm in the media storm came from comedians.
Believe me, I am no fan of Beck, Palin and their conservative/tea party cohorts. I think that putting gun sight crosshairs on a map of embattled districts is in seriously poor taste. However, this is not Palin’s fault. As john McCain rightly pointed out while reacting to the Arizona shooting, the rhetoric of violence and military metaphors is nothing new in politics. Both sides use terms like “targeted districts” and “battleground states.” Beck and Palin, among others, barely veil their extreme ideology, and their blatant appeals to popular fears coupled with an “us versus them” worldview and pro-gun advocacy certainly don’t help their case. However, they are not responsible for Congresswoman Giffords’ shooting. Jared Loughner alone is responsible for that.
And maybe no one is trying to force culpability on the Republican right. What we are trying to do is figure out why this happened. It reminds me in some ways of Columbine and Virginia Tech. The most troubling thing about those incidents is not that they don’t make sense; there is no convenient and easily understood structure by which we can integrate those events into our worldview. Blame Marilyn Manson, blame our gun culture, our violent history. Even in sum, the apparent forces at play do not account for a complete and rational vision. The troubling notion is that the conditions that lead to the tragedy in Arizona precede Palin and Beck. At this point is not clear that Loughner had any particular political sympathy. It is more likely that he exists, like the perpetrators of Columbine, and the gun man at Virginia Tech, in a fringe parameter of our contemporary society that does not conform to any 20th century notion of motivated violence. Gang bangers and drug dealers make sense, Islamic terrorism makes sense, and far right wing militia violence makes sense. As cynical as it may sound these are phenomena that still function along traditional, modern concepts of structural violence. This is not to accept or excuse these things; it is to point to the relative ease with which we integrate such spectacles into our understanding of the world.
Ultimately, I must confess that I write this because I myself cannot understand incidents like what took place in Arizona. It is too easy to point to nebulous factors like the influence of vitriolic rhetoric from the right, or guns or whatever else we can dredge up. It is ultimately more dangerous to lay blame for the sake of comfort and then attempt to regulate speech or behavior that cannot be proved to be causal. For it is imminently apparent that doing so would not reduce the amount of vitriol in our public discourse, but in fact increase it by holding to account those who are not ultimately responsible.
The trouble is that we have to do the hard thing, which is look at ourselves. We have to ask deeper questions, the kind where the answers may threaten cherished opinions and our comfortable intellectual refuges. Why is it that the right is winning so many to its cause? Why is it that the left cannot win over people who will ultimately benefit from the general ideological bent of the Democratic Party and its progressive adherents? There is a tendency to dismiss the followers of the Tea Party as ignorant or narrow minded, even plain old stupid. And this may well be why they continue to vote for those who manipulate their fears and insecurities. This self-reflection and criticality is, I believe the only thing we have to gain from this tragedy, and the only means to reducing the rhetoric of violence in our public debate.
And of course, I have strayed from the cause of explaining the shooting of Giffords. It is because in the end, there may be no explanation other than it is the act of a sick, and deeply troubled young man, living in a society that does not offer easy solutions to despair, to confusion or to desperation.
The great fear that accompanies incidents like this is that we have turned a corner, that we have entered a new and potentially grisly era of violent cynicism. In the end, we may have nothing left but to point to the actions of a troubled and deeply misguided young man that we can punish and hold solely responsible for the crime. This does not, however, mean that we should not remain vigilant in our attempts to maintain civility in our social and political discourse. It is too easy to take for granted the openness and accessibility of our civil society. We must remember that our democracy depends on education, access to information, and the ability to debate –without fear – the challenges that face us, and we must remember furthermore, that this system is not a given, and is not present in much of the world. We must fight to maintain this, even when that means reflecting critically on ourselves rather than just our political enemies, while resisting the urge to hunker down and prepare for some coming dark age of an ever-deteriorating social and political landscape.