U.S. Rep. Gabby Giffords (D-Ariz.) was shot today at a public event outside a grocery store in her home district. Many other people were hurt or killed, including a 9-year-old child. Giffords has been the target of repeated nudge-nudge-wink-wink incitements by the right wing over the past several months, including being put on a “hit list” (complete with cross-hairs over her district’s location) by Sarah Palin, and an event hosted by her electoral opponent Jesse Kelly (endorsed by Palin) where you could “Get on target for victory in November Help Remove Gabrielle Giffords from office Shoot an automatic rifle.” Shot at point-blank range with the bullet passing through her brain, Giffords survived the attack and the surgery and is in critical condition.
The shooter, Jared Loughner, by all indications is deeply disturbed, a fact that anger-outrage-nationalism-mongers are furiously trying to exploit to escape culpability. They won’t succeed. I’m fully confident that Americans, for all of our shortcomings, get that you can’t put cross-hairs over someone’s congressional district, sling around phrases like, “Don’t retreat…RELOAD,” and talk about “Second Amendment remedies” for months and then act shocked when someone gets shot. The local sheriff put it well when he spoke to the press about this crime earlier today:
At a news conference Saturday night, a clearly emotional [Sheriff Clarence] Dupnik, who has been close to both Giffords and Roll, repeatedly cited what he characterized as the “vitriol” that has infected political discourse. He said that his own state has become “the mecca for prejudice and bigotry.”
There is reason to believe, he said, that the shooting suspect “may have a mental issue,” adding that people like that “are especially susceptible to vitriol.”
“That may be free speech, but it’s not without consequences,” he said.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi: “I have concerns about some of the language that is being used because I saw … I saw this myself in the late ’70s in San Francisco,” Pelosi said, choking up and with tears forming in her eyes. “This kind of rhetoric is just, is really frightening and it created a climate in which we, violence took place and … I wish that we would all, again, curb our enthusiasm in some of the statements that are made.”
Perhaps all Sarah Palin and Jesse Kelly wanted to do was act tough and appeal to the card-carrying-NRA-member demographic among their base with all the gunsights and shooting talk. But if that’s the case, the sheriff is right: they still bear responsibility for what happened if their rhetoric reached Loughlin’s disturbed mind. And even if Loughlin never even heard of Palin or Kelly, they should still be ashamed of themselves for this kind of ugly talk and behavior, since today’s crime is a reminder that people actually do, you know, really get shot with real bullets, so maybe the “don’t retreat…RELOAD” rhetoric isn’t very damn funny after all.
Confession time: I did not react in a very Christian way this morning when I woke up to the news of the shooting. (For those that missed it, my response was to post examples of Palin’s and Kelly’s ugly violence-baiting material under various iterations of “Fuck you, Sarah Palin.”) I believe Palin, Kelly and other right-wing hate-baiters bear culpability for Loughlin’s violence and for the other violence that their more unhinged hearers undertake. I hate the things Palin and Kelly have done. But I should not have reacted in a way that is a less articulate version of, “I hate you, go to hell.” However, I won’t go so far as to delete those posts because I don’t want to leave the impression that I want to fool people into thinking I never said or wrote those things. I’d note, however, that Palin’s camp is taking the opposite approach, and that speaks volumes.
Things are bad in America right now. The politics in this country are as brittle as I’ve ever seen them. We have an unemployment crisis that’s so bad that the “improvement” in our unemployment rate is largely composed of people just dropping out of the labor force altogether, giving up on ever finding a job. Meanwhile, the super-rich and their political allies have forced further concessions from the government, decreasing funds available for public-structure-building and increasing the wealth of the rich even further. These huge, destructive economic forces are at play in people’s everyday lives behind the scenes such that outcomes seem disconnected from the choices we make as individuals. Hard work does not equal a good living. The situation feels luck-based and grossly unfair, and that combined with a feeling of relative deprivation breeds intense frustration and rage. And speaking into that rage are these brimstone-laced voices, telling people not how to unite to overcome the challenge as a community, but rather who is to blame and who must be expelled.
I worry that we’ve crossed some kind of critical threshold as a country. There’s a sense of something lurking around the corner, of some stark outcome waiting for us if we make just a couple of wrong moves. The fabric of our agreement to live together seems stretched to the point of snapping, threads already plucking away as the tension on the fibers increases. The monster is under the bed. I’m reminded of D.H. Lawrence’s intuition about Germany when he visted in 1923:
“It is as if life has retreated eastwards…at night you feel strange things stirring in the darkness, strange feelings stirring out of this still unconquered Black Forest. You stiffen your backbone and you listen to the night. There is a sense of danger. It is not the people. They don’t seem dangerous. Out of the very air comes a sense of danger, a queer, bristling feeling of uncanny danger.
Something has happened. Something has happened which has not yet eventuated. The old spell of the old world has broken, and the old, bristling, savage spirit has set in…Something has happened to the human soul, beyond all help…It is a fate; nobody now can alter it…At the same time, we have brought it about ourselves…”
The savage spirit is here. At first it is the crazy people that are moved by it. But unless we start making wiser choices about our words and our characterizations of each other, pretty soon everyone will go crazy.