As most everyone now knows, last Saturday a deranged youth in Arizona gunned down a Democrat congresswoman, together with a crowd of staffers and citizens. 6 were killed, another 18 wounded; congressman Gifford miraculously survived a point-blank shot to the head. But the spray of literal bullets unleashed was scarcely sadder than the rhetorical firefight that soon filled the country’s political media–which in this day and age, seems to be all its media. Some wondered aloud whether a shooting like this wasn’t the logical result of years of violent political rhetoric and demonizing of the opposition, and names like Sarah Palin and Rush Limbaugh surfaced, as indeed they were sure to do in any discussion about polarizing politics. Some went further, singling out Sarah Palin’s gun crosshairs map of politicians to take down. Rather than having the restraint to leave the more pointed and overstated accusations unanswered, and looking beyond them to the very important discussion about political rhetoric, both Palin and Limbaugh took the opportunity to step back into the limelight, climb on their soapboxes, and fire a heated counterblast to legions of imagined opponents. The irony is as sad as it is unsurprising–in the midst of expressing concern about polarized politics on the one hand, and denying its existence on the other hand, the two “sides” have managed to give us Exhibit A in a showcase of polarized, slanderous politics.
Let’s try to step back, sort through this mess, and make space for confession.
Did Sarah Palin incite Jared Loughner to violence? No, that would clearly be an absurd accusation; and indeed, so far as I know, no one has made it in its baldest form. Did violent political rhetoric (which right now is mostly the weapon of conservatives) incite him? Again, no, this would be an overstatement. But is it a relevant part of the discussion? Those seeking to deny that it is have laid stress on the fact that Loughner was mentally disturbed, confused, and irrational; ergo, they say, he could not have been politically motivated. But this, I think, is to miss the point of the concerns that have been raised. The point is that, whatever the psychiatric pathology that set Loughner awry, he decided to take out his angst on an elected official, a congresswoman. These aren’t exactly lurking on every street corner–there were thousands of other people he might have decided to shoot, but he decided on her as his target. Why? Because he’d convinced himself than an undesirable politician was the cause of all his problems, and the problems in the world, and was a suitable object for his violence. It’s not unreasonable to ask the question, “Why?” Why single out a congresswoman in this way? Indeed, the fact that many think it a needless question to ask simply underlines how dangerously accustomed we have become to pinning all our problems on politicians, and singling them out as enemies. This has become part of the air we breathe, not least the toxic air of talk radio.
Richard Hooker put his finger on the problem more than 400 years ago:
“First in the hearing of the multitude, the faults especially of higher callings are ripped up with marvelous exceeding severity and sharpnes of reproofe; which being oftentimes done begetteth a good opinion of integritie, zeale and holines, to such constant reproovers of sinne, as by likelihood would never be so much offended at that which is evill, unlesse themselves were singularly good. The next thinge hereunto is to impute all faults and corruptions wherewith the worlde aboundeth, unto the kind of Ecclesiastical governement established. Wherein, as before by reproving faults, they purchased unto themselves with the multitude a name to be vertuous; so by finding out this kinde of cause they obtaine to be judged wise above others….”
The only difference now is that we are not so pious as to blame the faults of the world on the ecclesiastical government, but the civil.
And this is the highly relevant and highly important question raised by the Arizona shootings–did a country of demagogues who try to persuade their citizens that the political opposition is the cause of “all faults and corruptions wherewith the worlde aboundeth” have some effect on persuading a deranged man that his local congressman was a suitable target on which to vent his wrath? In one article I read, a leading psychologist made this balanced statement: “Political rhetoric provided some of the context for his thinking, the pretext for his actions, but the core reasons for his actions were his psychosis.” That sounds fair enough. And as a context and pretext, it certainly bears some discussing. If an intoxicated sports fan decided to bust in to the visiting team’s locker and smash the shins of the players, and if this happened on a campus already criticized for fostering very bad sportsmanship, wouldn’t it be legitimate to raise questions about the ethos of that campus? Even if it turned out that there was no causal connection whatsoever between Loughner’s actions and the political ethos of the country (which seems unlikely, given how even the most maniacal of us are deeply shaped by our environment), this tragedy nevertheless serves as a reasonable occasion to raise concerns about that ethos, concerns that desperately need raising.
This, it seems to me, is the legitimate role of pointing out, for instance, Sarah Palin’s gun crosshairs map. The point is not–or should not be–that Loughner saw this map and said, “Oh, I guess I’d better go shoot Congressman Gifford–that’ll make Sarah Palin happy.” The point is that we should say, “Dang. That sure doesn’t look too good in retrospect. I wonder if it’s really a good idea to mark out your political opposition with gun crosshairs. A metaphor only, perhaps, but surely the wrong metaphor.” The blame, of course, should not fall only on conservatives, even if it is true that they have recently been the chief offenders. The behavior of the right over the past couple years has been truly puerile and reprehensible, but we shouldn’t be too quick to forget the shrill (literally–remember Howard Dean) rhetoric of the left during the final years of the Bush administration.
The fact that many in our nation have been unable to grasp this, to grasp the difference between a direct cause and a relevant context, and unwilling to take this opportunity for serious self-examination, using it instead for more political grandstanding and demonizing of the ambiguous “left” and “right,” seems to prove more than anything how right some were to raise the questions, how desperately our country needs to grow up. I mean, seriously. The kid on the playground at recess feels like every perceived insult has to be matched with a heavier counterinsult, or even a well-placed punch, to preserve his honor. But hopefully once you grow up, you learn the wisdom of the proverb “a gentle answer turns away wrath.” Or, to quote Hooker again, “Wee are still perswaded that a bare deniall is answer sufficient to thinges which meere phancie objecteth; and that the best apologie to wordes of scorne and petulancie is Isackes apologie to his brother Ismael, thapologie which patience and silence maketh. Our answer therefore to their reasons [arguments] is No; to their scoffes nothing.” Would that Sarah Palin and Rush Limbaugh could have been so persuaded. Few enough in the media were seeking to directly implicate them as causes of the shooting, and those who were could be safely ignored as hypocrites and fools. To the broader concerns that had been voiced, a response might be in order, and hopefully a balanced, patient, and self-critical response. But no, what do we get?
Sarah Palin accuses the media of engaging in “blood libel” and Rush Limbaugh says “They are accusing a majority of Americans of being accomplices to murder,” boasting that he now represents “a majority of Americans.” This latter claim is patently absurd–the hard, vitriolic right represented by such as Palin and Limbaugh cannot represent more than a quarter of the electorate at most. Of course, it may be true that a majority of Americans now engage in vitriolic political rhetoric and demonizing the opposition. If so, then a majority of Americans should be confessing their sins in the wake of these shootings, recognizing the responsibility we all bear. But, of course, Sarah Palin will have none of that. Quoting Ronald Reagan’s “We must reject the idea that every time a law’s broken, society is guilty rather than the lawbreaker. It is time to restore the American precept that each individual is accountable for his actions,” she went on to say, “Acts of monstrous criminality stand on their own. They begin and end with the criminals who commit them, not collectively with all the citizens of a state, not with those who listen to talk radio, not with maps of swing districts used by both sides of the aisle.” Each individual, and each individual only, bears guilt for the crime he commits. Understood in one sense, this is a truism. But understood in a fuller sense, this is simply not in accord with Christian teaching, or with reason. Corporate guilt is a basic reality in Scripture–all Israel bears responsibility for the evils of some Israelites, and even righteous men like Daniel beg forgiveness for the sins of the wicked. Dostoevsky’s Father Zossima says this powerfully in the Brothers Karamazov–we must learn to ask forgiveness of every creature in the world for the wrong that is done to it, a wrong that we share in due to our sin. Even aside from theologizing, it is not hard to recognize that the actions of a society influence the actions of its members, and when one of those members commits a monstrous deed, all of society should examine its conscience. Nuanced moral judgment, of course, will make a distinction between those who are direct causal agents of a crime, and those who are part of the context that facilitated it, and will apportion a legal guilt on the former that does not rest on the latter; but the latter cannot therefore absolve itself of any need for penitence.
Such inability to engage in nuanced moral judgment–evidenced by Limbaugh’s wildly off-the-mark claim that most of America was being accused of being “accomplices to murder” has become a distinctive of American politics, it seems, right and left. As has, of course, hypocrisy. Palin and Limbaugh both deplored the fact that some would use this tragedy as a pretext to score political points against the opposition, and simultaneously, they both sought to do so: “‘They will use anyone,’ Limbaugh said of the left. ‘They will use any event. They will take what is a genuine tragedy and without any evidence whatsoever attempt to massage it for their own political benefit. And they can’t do it by touting their ideas. They can’t do it by explaining the virtue of their beliefs. So what do they have to do? They have to impugn, destroy get rid of, regulate out of business, their political opponent in media if they have a chance.’” Can you tell me, Limbaugh, in good conscience, that you aren’t massaging these accusations for your political benefit, using it as another opportunity to demonize the left?
Sarah Palin is right to say at least that we shouldn’t be using this tragedy to point fingers at one another; no, we should be using it to point fingers at ourselves, at all of us who encourage crimes like this by publicly hating, rather than loving our brothers. It’s no surprise, I suppose, that a nation that so habitually demonizes and kills its enemies, real and imaginary, outside its borders, should soon find this hate spilling over into how we treat those within. Those who don’t learn to love their enemies will soon find it difficult to love even their friends. When we see these public actions being mimicked by private citizens, the only adequate response is, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”