Monday, January 10, 2011

The Meaning of Jared Loughner

The shooting of Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ 08) has prompted a lot of commentary across the media landscape ranging from the thoughtful and sincere to the predictably partisan. Because of the history of attacks against Democrats over the last two years, and the specific history of intimidation against Gabrielle Giffords, many commentators fit the assassination attempt into the long-developing narrative of escalating Republican rhetoric. A window in Gabrielle Gifford's campaign office was shot out this summer. There has been, among the right-wing a concerted effort to push back against the theory that extreme violent rhetoric has anything to do with extreme violent actions.

Too much of the criticism of this narrative is defensive and self-serving. These (uniformly self-identified Right wing) articles rush to announce that because Loughner is insane, "mentally disturbed," or possibly suffered from schizophrenia that his actions are a result of a mental disorder and have nothing to do with the political world surrounding him. This line of attack is deeply wrong. People suffering from schizophrenia are not more violent than the normal population. Insanity does not simply produce violence, despite the pseudoscience beliefs in biological criminality. Mental illness does not mean that a person is operating in a reality that is totally their own; it means that the persons interprets reality in aberrant ways. Sometimes these paranoid interpretations can have violent outcomes, but mental illness hardly causes violence per se. Other triggers are usually present which push the paranoid schizophrenic into planning violent acts.

The defensive critique of the Violent Rhetoric Narrative discounts the connection between the mentally ill and the real world, choosing to believe in a binary distinction between the "healthy" and the "ill." The "healthy" live in the world that we all do; the "ill" are entirely separate from normal reality. This is a fallacy.

The defense is also, me thinks, protesting too much. Nobody believes that Sarah Palin or the (non-Loughner) activists who brought guns to political rallies over the last year are directly responsible for influencing Jared Loughner into attempting to assassinate Gabrielle Giffords. However, it's not like nobody could have predicted that a congressperson might be murdered in the near future. Such attacks are rare. The last congressman to be assassinated was Leon Ryan who was murdered by cult members in 1978. That such an assassination occurred after a national campaign in which eliminationist rhetoric became the norm among Republicans (any comparative study of Republican and Democratic campaign messaging will bear out this claim for 2010) in one of the races that most clearly evinced gun-and-violence themes is hard to label a mere coincidence. It makes intuitive sense to link the phenomena to the crime. Much of what the left blogosphere is doing is saying I-told-you-so to their brothers and sisters on the right. Sarah Palin provided the most visible (and visual) violent rhetoric of the campaign, but there were many conservative politicians and grassroots activists that went much further. As one tweeter put it, "@SarahPalinUSA please retweet- DON'T RELOAD!"

There is also the conventional wisdom relating to crime and punishment issues that liberals tend to address crime, violence, and motivation within a societal framework while conservatives tend to prefer purely individualist explanations. I believe that the linking of political rhetoric to the assassination has much more to do with an attempt to place the work of a (probably) mentally disturbed individual into a rational framework. The attempt to answer the question, "What made this man kill?" is a central feature of American fascination with serial killers and mass murderers. The defensive conservatives think that attempting to produce this narrative is a "disgusting" attack on Palin are misinterpreting what question is being asked. There is, I believe, a deep soul searching among most Americans in times of crisis when the conscience of the nation is shocked. Many right-wing bloggers, the Wall Street Journal editorial board appear neither shaken nor particularly interested in anything but partisan warfare at this moment. At least for once, actual Republican leaders are acting appropriately.

Finally the defense of Palin's rhetoric is intriguing. The claim is that words like "targeted district" and "battleground" are inherently violent, so more explicit gun-related discourse is not exceptional, therefore not to blame. Political analogies are, despite what these commentators would have you believe, not exclusively violent. Palin's rhetoric consists mainly of violent metaphor. You don't hear Palin talk about building bridges between constituencies, sitting down at the table, or any of the other hundreds of uniting cliches of politics. Instead, "Don't retreat; Reload" is her identifiable mantra. The one-sided reliance on violent rhetoric tells us much about her political style, doesn't make her particular rhetoric remarkable.

What does set Palin's rhetoric apart from mainstream political metaphor is that it exhorts listeners individually to engage in political warfare. The term 'campaign' evokes a military ethos, but in a mode of collective militarism. "Targeted districts" are those that receive additional resources and attention. These metaphors engage a vision of militancy which depends on community involvement and support, essentially warfare before the invention of semi-automatic weapons. The insistence that supporters "reload," the action that Jared Loughner was taking as he was tackled to the ground, suggests a more individual machinery of death. "Battleground" states suggest two large forces amassing in order to achieve victory over an area; gunsights evoke a shooting. The former suggests a background of political support for the frontline organizers who competitively criss-cross the territory, leaving no stone unturned for votes. The latter primes thinking about personal glory in hunting, "bagging," and killing political opponents. Normal political metaphors rely on the marshaling of the army; the more outlandish violent rhetoric on display this year focused much more on the destruction of defenseless victims.

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