The Mad Men in the Attic

Nick Gillespie at the Reason blog cites a CBS News poll showing “57 percent of respondents said the harsh political tone had nothing to do with the shooting, compared to 32 percent who felt it did.” Gillespie argues the one third attributing the Tucson shootings to political discourse can’t come to terms with the essential randomness of life:

From almost any perspective, it is extremely unsatisfying that a killer is motivated simply by mental illness. We want there to be a stronger, deeper, somehow more complicated explanation in cases such as these, both to to dispel lingering fears that chance and contingency dominate the cosmos and because, oddly enough, it helps elevate the suffering of the victims and survivors of monumental violence if they were somehow caught up in a grander plan, no matter how matter evil.

This is all true. The casual relationship between messages in the mass media and an individual act of violence is usually murky at best. After all, despite all the threats from the right directed at John F. Kennedy, his assassin was a disaffected leftist.

Yes, it is important to remember that no evidence has emerged that Loughner was motivated by right-wing discourse. So the shootings in Tucson were not in any way caused by political discourse in the mass media. The criminally insane never receive signals from the outside world. Okay. But what about the harsh political tone in general? Does this mean we can’t draw an ethical line between Sarah Palin’s “Don’t retreat, reload!” and a CBO report on health care for fear the distinction “will appear to conservatives as an attempt to use the emotion of the moment to stigmatize them,” as Jonathan Chait suggests?

I worry that treating the attempted assassination of a Democratic member of Congress as both a national tragedy and an epiphenomenon will actually intensify corrosive partisanship rather than alleviate it. As Gillespie points out, the Tucson shootings are nonsensical, beyond reasoned discourse. The risk is that all connections between language and action will appear equally nonsensical, that Gabrielle Giffords will become just another card to play.

Unless there is a recognition that, at some level, however indirect, heated political discourse contributed to the shootings in Tucson, political capital will continue to be earned by using irresponsible, vitriolic partisan language. The real problem is not that a few crazies on both sides are using extreme language, but that extremist language has been embraced by the Republican Party and its allies. Discourse that repelled Barry Goldwater is now voiced by members of the House of Representatives and by commentators on prime time network television. Of course Sarah Palin or Glen Beck never intended to inspire Lochner to grab his Glock and take a taxi to the Safeway, but intentions don’t matter. Actions do, and a political statement is an action. There’s nothing wrong with passionate advocacy. There’s isn’t even anything wrong with an occasional violent metaphor. But there’s something wrong with deliberately and systematically creating an atmosphere of hate for one’s own political advantage, especially in a country with a checkered history of armed political violence. After all the prayers have been uttered for the victims and all the candles have burned down to their nubs, there’s nothing to stop the fury from starting up again. If you think vicious, inhumanly hateful language has eased in the immediate aftermath of the shootings in Arizona, take a tour of the comments section of Paul Krugman’s January 8th column. Or check out the ghoulish Westboro Baptist Church, which has cheered on the slayings and plans to protest the funeral for nine-year-old Christina Green.

Meanwhile, the armed and delusional, the shadow dwellers like Jared Lee Loughner, will be the mad men in the attic, stashed away yet listening all the time, waiting for their chance to set fire to the entire house. No one will admit to ever knowing them.

What happened to the conservatives who warned against inflaming the passions of the masses?



  1. Amen brother – Son. I think you have summed up this complex and horrific issue very accurately. Now the challenge for all of us is to inject our society with reason and civility.


  2. Thanks, Mom. From what I heard of it, President Obama gave a nice speech last night that should help settle things down a bit.


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