Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Carefully Chosen Thoughts And Words

When tragedy strikes, we try to figure it out. We try to find meaning in a situation that is inherently meaningless. We try to find some link to the larger society and culture that might help us understand how and why such a horrid event could occur. Arguments ensue over the relative strength of the relationships between various cultural factors and the actors who carried out these horrid acts of violence.

Sometimes, however, that meaning just doesn't exist. In 2000, at my place of employment, a high school student was doing some homework during down time. She had to write an essay on Lord of the Flies, and asked me for help in understanding what the book was describing. Without hesitating, I said, "The Columbine High School shooting is Lord of the Flies in real life." Some Christians tried to make hay out of the death of one of the students, because she allegedly refused to denounce her beliefs before being murdered. Yet, all the students who died that day, Christian or not, died not because of what they believed or didn't believe. They died because the two young men who went on that killing spree were interested in killing. Period. No amount of post hoc scrutiny of this or that particular case will wrest anything more out of that event.

When a Luddite left-winger mails bombs to those he believes are destroying our world, the right goes in to overdrive on the dangers of liberal ideology.

When a small group of right-wing extremists bomb a building, killing 159 people, including children at an on-site day care facility, it might be important to look at the way popular anti-government talk - especially all the descriptions of government employees as "faceless bureaucrats" - might have helped depersonalize the victims enough to allow those responsible to carry out their act of terrorism.

When a young man is beaten to death for the heinous crime of hitting on one of a pair of bar-hopping buddies, his body left on display as a warning to any other young gay man, I would think the demonizing of gays might need to be paid attention to just a bit more (although, to be fair to the murderers here, the murder of gays for this particular crime against masculinity goes hand-in-hand with the rhetoric of anti-gay hatred).

Assessing the level of social and cultural culpability in any tragic event is, to a certain extent, a fools errand. Even should clear lines of cause and effect, or at the very least correlation, exist, their relative merits and strengths will always be a matter of dispute. One can allow rage to overwhelm one, as Tony Kushner did in a November, 1998 article in The Nation, in which he hung the death of Matthew Shepard around the necks of every politician and religious figure who ever spoke out against gays and "the gay lifestyle".

The facts of the David Adkisson case in Tennessee are pretty clear. A man, frustrated over lack of work, and directing his hostility out at "liberals" enters a Unitarian Church and opens fire, killing two and wounding several others before being subdued by members of the congregation as he reloads. At his home are book by radio personalities Michael Savage, Sean Hannity, and Bill O'Reilly. The lines of correlation are pretty clear here; these and other right-wingers routinely insist that liberals are responsible for our social ills, even if what they describe as social ills aren't at all, but figments of their own perfervid imaginations. While the shooter reached a breaking point due to a confluence of unfortunate circumstances, his grievances against a society that seemed to exclude him from making a positive contribution was certainly fed by a book describing liberalism as a mental disorder.

This is not to say that such books should not appear. This is not to say that right-wingers are not entitled to their opinions. This is only to say that when a right-winger goes on a shooting rampage, and leaves a note behind blaming liberals for all his troubles and explicitly targeting these same liberals, and there is abundant evidence that the man in question was exposed to the slurry coming from right-wing talking-heads and blabbermouths, it might be nice to hear a thoughtful word or two from these same folks acknowledging a certain level of culpability.

Stephen King removed from print copies of his pseudonymous novel Rage after Columbine. Are Savage, Hannity, and others who have written pages and pages of scurrilous nonsense about how liberals are destroying our country going to respond in a like fashion? Are they even going to acknowledge that in the fever-swamps of the right, there might be those who take their words so seriously as to end the threat to our way of life by murdering a bunch of church-goers watching a children's program?

Virtual Tin Cup

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