Yesterday's mass shooting in Tuscon, AZ is a test case for our public discourse. Quite apart from the untold human tragedy, our reaction to the event as a people will tell us not so much about who we are, but about those who are the gatekeepers of our national dialogue. So far, color me unimpressed, sad, and amused.
We are so accustomed to the left/right divide, absent any but the slightest evidence whatsoever, there was a rush to answer that most difficult of questions: Why did this happen? Perusing Twitter yesterday, the general sense was there was a need to tie this event to the seeming uptick in violent rhetoric, particularly on the right; to tie Jared Loughner, the alleged shooter, to the Tea Party, to the culture of gun enthusiasm. As Duncan Black said, "Which Team Does This Nut Play For".
The reality of violence, its ubiquity in our social and cultural and political history, its prominence in our popular and high culture, the reality of violence in our homes, our schools, our streets, our prisons, our churches, our places of work all make placing blame in a case such as this virtually impossible. Furthermore, "blame" is for children. It is an escape from responsibility.
There are other ways to escape responsibility, too. Among the statements released yesterday by various elected officials, House Speaker John Boehner's use of the adjective "senseless" can be taken any number of ways. Personally, I take it as meaningless. No act is "senseless". The person who acted had "a sense" as to why the act was performed. Political assassinations, successful or not, are usually done to make a statement, to achieve a particular political goal the person so acting believes cannot be achieved any other way. Even John Hinkley's attempt on the life of Pres. Reagan in 1981 made sense, to him. Obsessively pursuing the actress Jodi Foster, Hinkley decided that, like Robert DeNiro's character, murdering (or at least attempting to murder) a political figure would garner her attention. Calling the act "senseless" divorces it from any possible attempt to understand the act as something real, something human, some part of our national life.
I would like to offer an alternative approach. One that seeks to understand what happened yesterday, given our limited understanding of the event and the facts surrounding it, that nevertheless provides us all an opportunity to take in the enormity of it, the horror of it, the humanity of it.
Shut the hell up.
There are 9 people dead, including a nine-year-old girl. Nine families whose lives have been torn asunder by the persistence of violence in America. Those who survived, including Rep. Giffords, are in for a long road to physical and psychic recovery. The young man who has been placed in custody for the event, from what little evidence we have, seems to show signs of some kind of mental illness; some bit of compassion needs to be extended to him, as well, as someone who might not have been aware of the moral import of his actions.
Rather than rushing to judgment - which team does this nut play for? - in silence, we might discover our own complicity in the prevalence of violence. Politics is, indeed, about struggle, about power, and violence is merely an expression of struggle, a tool for those both in and out of power. In America, however, there is an almost mythic quality to the resort to violence. We read it in declarations concerning our private response to crime. We read it in the celebration, not so much of our military personnel, but of military actions that result in mass death. We see it in homes where far too many women and children find no haven, no respite from the ugliness of the world outside. We fear it at work, wondering if some employee or former employee might decide to take out frustrations or grievances by bringing a gun and opening fire. We read it in our newspapers as various politicians and their supporters declare that violent opposition to whatever prevailing party or ideological rule is not only possible, but morally and politically legitimate.
All of this violence, and we far too often remain silent. All the calls to violence and all too often dismiss it as "mere" rhetoric. In short order, I am quite sure, we will read (if it hasn't been suggested already; I don't peruse the comment threads of right-wing web sites for the sake of my mental hygiene) that, had some person in the crowd had a weapon, the alleged perpetrator might have been stopped (I'm guessing that owning a gun provides psychic powers; such an individual would know who this person was and what he planned, and could stop it before it began). Thus is the cycle of violence heralded, and given force to continue.
Since we remain silent in the midst of the ordinary violence that surrounds us, why is it that when the extraordinarily violent occurs, we suddenly find ourselves moved to speak?