Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Naïve, Simplistic and Tucson – Part I

Fellow-Feeling, an onus against Uncle Sam and Murder

In the wake of the murder of a federal judge, a nine year old girl and a handful of others in an attempt to kill Congresswoman Gabbie Gifford in Tucson, Arizona, a spate of reciprocal finger pointing has erupted. Some progressives sought to blame hatemongers like Rush Limbaugh and tea pots like Sara Palin for the carnage arguing that without the violent political rhetoric -which in Palin’s case went so far as to train gun crosshairs on the congresswoman’s district - this would not have occurred. Not surprisingly, self-righteous conservatives immediately objected to attempts to blame them. Never underestimate the ability of conservatives to play the martyr. And, true to form, they took the usual acontextual tack of demonizing a rogue individual while asserting that it’s precisely folks like these that evidence the need for even more guns in a culture inebriated with the mechanisms of death.

I had to shake my head with sadness over the event and the responses. It’s hard to get too worked up emotionally over events like Tucson these days when killing fields like Columbine and Virginia Tech have become so commonplace that the yellow ribbons and candlelight vigils have become little more than maudlin cliché, a shallow public dramaturgy which often adds insult to the injuries of lost human lives. The reality is that America has come to accept this kind of carnage as an expectable part of living in this self-proclaimed “land of the free” (really? Does Tucson suggest that Americans are really free? Isn’t freedom from the constant threat of lethal violence a rather primordial freedom which precedes all others?)

Clearly, our weapon-sodden culture is a part of the problem. America legally arms its people to the teeth with everything from concealable pistols to multiple targeting weapons of war and then expresses shock and dismay when people actually use them on each other. We also seem to be able to even slow down this deadly pattern, much less stop it. We talk about our problem in abstract terms of rights and idealized visions of self-defense. And as a result we are polarized between those who would simplistically see guns as the root cause of all social evils and those whose denial about the harm these firearms cause boast of an unquestionable ability of the average individual to defend him or herself when attacked.

These are the rather classic marks of a deadly addiction. America’s love affair with firearms has become increasingly pathological over time. And I see its unwillingness to admit that it has a problem even in the face of events like Tucson as one more sign that American culture has simply not been willing to mature out of its long-term bratty, defensive adolescence.

There was no small amount of irony in the NPR news stories the same week as the shootings which reported that the vast majority of guns being used in the drug-related crime in nearby Mexico are legally bought in two American states - Texas and Arizona, whose residents dress up to play soldiers riding up and down the borders in their pickup trucks, toting their weapons of war. They see it as their self-appointed duty to keep America safe from those they would caricaturize as “illegals.” Their states have passed draconian laws against Mexican immigrants which, in turn, have been fueled by fear of the violence resulting when their own guns come back across the border in the hands of drug runners. As my mother would say, this is a pretty good case of cutting one’s nose off to spite one’s face.

Arizona’s huge chip on its shoulder about everything from immigrants to Martin Luther King, Jr. to guns has a long history. The Los Angeles Times reported this week that while Arizonans see their current gun laws as somehow an outgrowth of their state’s cowboy history, in fact the gun laws in Tombstone during the period in which the famed shootout at the OK Corral occurred were much more stringent than today’s Arizona. Indeed, the cause of the shootout, which seems to have occurred in an alley rather than a corral, was apparently the local sheriff’s attempt to enforce the territory’s laws against carrying guns in public. Wonder what Wyatt Earp might have done with Jared Loughner.

However, I do not see guns as the besetting sin giving rise to Tucson. Legally purchased guns in a gun-crazed state currently contemplating allowing concealed weapons on college campuses were simply the means by which Jared Loughner is alleged to have carried out his bloody rampage but they were not the cause.

Ironically, it is the subsequent sparring over political rhetoric which is actually closer to the cause of this event than probably either of the contending parties realizes. To suggest that the dehumanizing rhetoric of the right which is fairly consistently laced with appeals to violence such as “the second amendment option” (meaning killing those identified as enemies who cannot be defeated at the polls) had no impact on the shootings in Tucson is naïve at best. As Jesse Jackson says, “A text without a context is a pretext.” Nothing occurs in a vacuum.

But to suggest that the political rhetoric alone is responsible for a mentally ill assailant going on a murderous rampage is simplistic. It confuses context for motive and seeks to connect dots that have some major gaps between them. It also suggests that the solution for the problem is simply to insure that political debate is civil and such events will not recur in the future. As Albert Einstein said, “Things should be seen as simply as possible but no more so.” Beyond simple explanations lies the realm of forced answers of the simplistic variety.

This month’s Christian Century carried a review of Ohio State history professor Randolph Roth’s massive study of American Homicide. Roth rejects the leap from correlation to causation in arguments about guns, poverty, drugs and all the many easy answers that American criminologists, economists and sociologists have offered the public over the past century as explanations for the world’s most murderous society. But he takes the concerns over political rhetoric very seriously. Indeed, he argues that it’s precisely when such divisive, dehumanizing rhetoric has been present in our nation’s history, our murder rates have been correspondingly at their highest. Conversely, it’s when Americans have seen each other as fellow Americans, seeking to work together to solve national problems from the Great Depression to the Second World War, that murder rates have plummeted.

Roth makes four general assertions correlating murder rates with public perceptions. He observes that murder rates drop when the following perceptions are held by the public:

1.The belief that government is stable and that its legal and judicial institutions are unbiased and will redress wrongs and protect lives and people.

2. A feeling of trust in government and the officials who run it, and a belief in their legitimacy.

3. Patriotism, empathy and fellow feeling arising from racial, religious or political solidarity.

4. The belief that the social hierarchy is legitimate, that one’s position in society is or can be satisfactory and that one can command the respect of others without resorting to violence.

In short, it matters greatly how we see our countrymen and women – all of them. It matters how we envision our government and our relationship – including our duties – to it. It matters whether people believe they can anticipate justice from their dealings with government and business alike and whether the system insures they have a chance for actually realizing their aspirations or whether it is tipped against them.

Roth bases these four observations on his well documented studies of American jurisdictions over the life history of the nation beginning in colonial times. Of the 651 total pages, nearly 200 are devoted to sources and documentation. This man has clearly done his homework.

And yet, his conclusion seems rather obvious. When people have acquiesced to a rather mindless mistrust of their governments (because no one is born fearing governments) it’s likely they will see them as illegitimate and thus targeting its leaders – like Gabbie Gifford - should not be surprising. When people have come to distrust others, to see themselves in hyperindividualist terms competing in “a war of all against all” in Hobbesian terms, it should not be surprising that murder rates would soar. When one believes themselves to have no duties to the other, beginning with a respect of their dignity, there would be little reason not to kill the other if their murder comes to be seen as a means or an obstacle to self-gratification. And when a people come to believe that the American dream of self-actualization that every American schoolchild was taught is little more than a cynical, hollow deception, murder should not be a surprising expression of the resulting cognitive dissonance.

The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.

Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Orlando



If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.
Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes. ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

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