The culture of violence, once again
We are a society. We are an intrinsically interconnected group of people forming a cohesive social unit. What one person does or says affects us all. It strikes me that those most opposed to assigning any societal blame to this political assassination are those who believe, in classical liberal tradition, that we are merely a group of autonomous individuals solely responsible for our own actions. But culture matters. Our friends on the right understand this when it comes to sexuality. They understand that widespread availability of pornography and a prevailing cultural libertinism creates all sorts of social problems. But it is exactly the same with violence. The ubiquitous nature of violence in popular culture, from Hollywood movies to video games, is a problem. The glorification of the military, going far far beyond the need for last resort self-defense, is a problem. The gun fetish and the power of the gun lobby is a huge problem.
And of course, the increasing level of violence in the political culture is a problem. There is rhetorical violence in the language of the right and the left. A few decades ago, it was probably more evident on the left. But no more. Over the past few years, and especially since the election of Obama, we have witnessed the mainstreaming of right-wing paranoid and violent fantasies. We have witnessed the adoption of Leninist modes of discourse, full of eliminationist rhetoric. This matters. It corrodes the culture by contributing to a cheapening of human life and dignity.
We all know the examples. Think of the violence spewed by people like O’Reilly and Beck in the media. Think of Palin’s “don’t retreat, reload” and her targeting of Giffords in her now-infamous cross-hairs. Think of Sharron Angel’s calls to “take out” Harry Reid and references to resorting to “second amendment” remedies. Think of Michelle Bachman’s desire to see her constituents “armed and dangerous” against cap-and-trade. Think of Giffords’ own tea party opponent asked for help to “remove Gabrielle Giffords from office, shoot a fully automatic M-16 with Jesse Kelly.” Think of health care. Remember the violent town-hall meetings? We know that the pro-life Democrats who voted for the Affordable Care Act received death threats. Steve Driehaus received these threats and somebody as prominent as John Boehner told him he would be a “dead man” after this vote. And I just heard over the weekend that the reason Joseph Cao did not vote for the final healthcare bill was because he had received death threats against himself and his family. Death threats over a plan to expand acccess to healthcare? How did we come to this?
So it is not really a question of whether this assassin, who certainly seemed crazy, was associated with the tea party or shared their beliefs. This is the wrong way to look at it. The argument is that the culture created by this rhetoric, and the message sent to society, can help create the conditions for these lone wolves to act. There are few vacuums in society.
So what must be done? Well, it’s certainly time for the right to regain its sense of responsibility, and to stop playing with fire. But it is broader than that. Ending the culture of violence and promoting a true and holistic culture of life has many different dimensions. The culture is sick, and needs healing.
For example, if this young man had a mental condition, was be treated appropriately, or simply discarded? Do we, as a society, even care? It is interesting that he comes from Arizona. Arizona right now is contributing to the cheapening of human life by stripping away access to healthcare to save money, even to the extent of implementing real life “death panels” where people have died. Arizona is also on the forefront of demonizing the immigrant, another inflammatory assault on human dignity.
And when is somebody going to get serious about gun control? This man might have been crazy, but what about his so-called “rights” to buy extremely powerful and dangerous firearms? As Drew Westin noted recently, “Since the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy in that terrible summer of 1968, over a million Americans have died at the wrong end of a firearm. In most countries, we would call that genocide”. This is a major theme in the culture of life, and a monumental blindspot in the American psyche. As Catholic Christians, we need to call out the blasphemous “pro-God and pro-gun” slogans. We need to call for more solidarity, and less selfish individualism.