This past Saturday afternoon, I sat here on my couch and read various early accounts on the internet of the terrible event in Tucson, Arizona. Arizona House Representative Gabrielle Giffords had been shot, and there were reports that she had died. Fortunately, those reports turned out to be false. Others were killed, though, including a nine-year-old girl. A lone gunman had apparently decided to murder a public servant who was a Democrat, and had killed others in the process. Shit, I thought. It’s probably some Tea-Party type asshole. A Timothy McVeigh sort, who believed he could make some kind of political statement and effect change by murdering people, in particular a Democrat with some power in the political system. Consequences for the crimes he imagined the Government to have perpetrated on him and other true patriots, I supposed.
Taking a break from the news, and curious to see how my friends and acquaintances were processing the information, I popped over to facebook, a place that I consider something of a town hall. Any major event will spur many comments by the 500 or so people I am connected to via the site, so of course I expected to see a reaction about this one.
I immediately noticed in my news feed a picture and comment made by a good friend. You’ve likely seen it by now; a map of the continental United States with crosshair-style targets in various spots, each representing the district of a House Democrat who had voted for “the health care bill” in 2008, their names listed below the map. One of the House Democrats listed was Gabrielle Giffords. It had the url of Sarah Palin’s web-site at the top, and with those cross-hairs and the slogan, “It’s time to take a stand,” it seemed like a smoking gun.
Along with the map, my friend declaimed that he wasn’t suggesting the shooting was political, but that it was quite a coincidence that the map existed at all.
Balderdash, I thought, and quickly wrote a comment below his post, saying that of course it was political. How could it not be, considering who had been shot and this very map and the political climate of this country and all these damn gun-loving, ignorant conspiracy-minded dolts who don’t even realize health care reform is a good thing and that they’re almost certainly paying less money in taxes since their beloved dumb-ass Dubyah had left the office. Divisive, vitriolic numbskulls do things like this because they think it means something, I wrote, and they think they can fix things by shooting. Yes, it’s political. We’ll find out about this asshole soon enough.
Finished with my little tirade, I moved the mouse-pointer over the “comment” button, ready to send this wake-up call to my wishy-washy friend.
And then I paused. A thought occurred to me. What if I was wrong?
I copied the comment, thinking I’d be back to post it, or a modified but fairly similar version of it, in short order. I closed the page and headed back to cnn.com. Who was this asshole indeed? His name had been posted, and I started doing a little standard internet research.
Almost immediately, I found his youtube page. Through his five posted videos and profile information, it quickly became clear that Jared Loughner is a deeply disturbed, delusional human being. His videos (text-based, written by him) are not the coherent manifesto of a committed soldier of the sort who soberly plans a political assassination for the purpose of statement and possible gain. He does not appear as a zealot. He does appear, quite sadly, to be a person who is largely incapable of controlling his thoughts, desires, and anger. This is not to suggest he is not culpable for his actions, but merely to stress that with a fairly small amount of investigation, I was able to discover information that he’d presented that gave a powerful glimpse into a chaotic mind; the kind of mind that a person without a Psychology degree (such as myself) could easily see was somewhat terrifyingly arranged. I could tell that Jared Loughner likely suffered from paranoid schizophrenia, was perhaps bi-polar, and was either undiagnosed at all or at least untreated.
More research found other corroborating evidence of such. His facebook page had been hacked and then was soon removed. His myspace page had been removed too, but screen-shots of it had popped up on the web. His last post was apparently a suicide note of a kind, and it included a reference to the “illiteracy rate”. He had mentioned grammar and mathematics in the youtube videos, and it seems evident that his limited understanding of those subjects had become part of the anger in his broken brain. One could call his writings “ramblings”, but that would not exactly tell the story they contain. The writings don’t ramble, so much as they provide a road-map of his form of logic. Such logic (which isn’t actually logical at all), along with the desire to explain it, and a dose of discontentment and paranoia, along with the pistol that he had posted a picture of on his myspace page, apparently combined to create the proverbial powder-keg.
Various friends of Jared’s had begun to be quoted in various internet stories by the evening. Most of them said things about his anti-social behavior, occasional outbursts, and general creepiness. One friend did mention that he was a “liberal”, which barely fazed me, as by this point I was pretty sure that Jared Loughner didn’t have a very firm grasp on reality in general, much less the nuances of contemporary politics.
Back at facebook, the Palin map was proliferating and being passed around by more of my liberal friends. One added a comment that it was “accessory to murder,” and “no longer an opinion, now a piece of evidence from a brutal crime scene.”
I have always seen politics as starting from an intellectual place. Liberalism, to me, is inextricably connected to a more sound and truly logical thought process. It’s visceral for me as well of course, in the sense that the precepts of liberalism include more respect for humanity, but as a child of liberal intellectuals, what makes it work for me is not how I feel about it, but how it makes sense. Are there conservative ideas that make sense as well? Sure, occasionally. But liberalism includes a willingness to understand the world in a way that is not hindered by the narrowness of conservative ideology. Free of such ignorance-inducing faith-based restrictions, a liberal-leaning mind is allowed (and requires) the freedom to analyze and understand matters of complexity without being tripped up by hatred. Make no mistake, I hate much about Sarah Palin. But what is reprehensible about her and her ilk, to me, is not so charged with anger that I can’t allow her her right to foolishness and her many past and likely future errors in judgment. This map represents a rather crass side of base human thought; us vs. them, no-holds barred. It’s simple, it’s shallow, and juxtaposed with a tragedy like that which occurred in Tucson last Saturday, it’s downright disgusting. What it is not, however, is “evidence.”
“Most intellectuals will only half-listen,” is a line by the rapper Nas. It’s an insightful jab, and it gets to the heart of how people react in situations like this one. In many ways I can’t blame my liberal friends for their initial reactions. The event was shocking, the kind of thing that drives people toward explanation. Often, this leads to a rush to judgment or a settling on a reason or excuse. Initially, I had similar thoughts. What I found in some of these posts and the ensuing conversations on facebook, though, was a kind of commitment to an idea and poor, waffling logic that I expect from the right, and somewhat stubbornly try to believe only really shows up on that side. Unfortunately, in this instance, I was reminded that plenty who call themselves liberals, and think of themselves as open-minded intellectuals, can easily show themselves as hypocrites when faced with an emotional issue.
A note, then, to these people, and to myself: this is exactly the kind of thing that stokes the fires of disdain from the right-wing. Such a contradiction is at the root of what conservatives suppose is wrong with the left; that we are even more fascist by nature than they. The minute that we allow ourselves to seize on an idea like this, that Sarah Palin and the right in general are clearly responsible for such outbursts of violence, we expose ourselves as the opposite of what we should strive for, if we are to keep liberal thought running parallel with truly insightful intellectualism. As soon as we let the two diverge, we are no better than those who we’d demonize. Suggesting, on the basis of visceral feeling and thin evidence that the other side is inherently awful and at the root of all evil is what the other side does. Point out their ineptitudes. Highlight their lapses in sound thought. Point up their foolishness. Do not, however, in the process of doing so, lose sight of the only thing that can effectively keep one superior; an ability and commitment to intellectual understanding which is undaunted by vitriol and passion. A rush to judgment exposes anyone, no matter what reason and ideology that person is aligned with, as at least foolish and, as the right would suppose of the left, unwittingly dangerous in an Orwellian sense. Indignant anger that carries accusations and vitriol is the sort of thing those on the left supposed helped cause this tragedy. Yet, in many of these conversations, that’s exactly what we were giving back to those we were condemning. Ironic, at least.
Most of these conversations on facebook died down within a couple of days. The friend who had suggested that the map was accessory to murder downgraded his initial point to outrage that Loughner could acquire a gun, despite his run-ins with law-enforcement and obvious mental issues. This is surely true. If he could not have gotten his hands on a 9mm Glock and a 30-round(!) clip, he may well not have been able to carry out such a devastating attack. Or, maybe he would have found another way. Sometimes, crazy and angry are impossible to deter. As much as I’d prefer that Fox News and Sarah Palin and others on that side of things way over there would calm down their rhetoric, I also know that a susceptibility to judgment is a very human trait. “Do it to Julia,” cried Winston in Orwell’s 1984, giving up his lover when driven to a place of primal fear and self-preservation. Until the conservatives chain us down and set hungry rats on our eyelids, I suggest we not fall into the trap of swift blame on a thin basis.
The moment during which my finger hovered over the “comment” button, set to deliver my verdict on the day’s events, is the teetering moment of indecision that I’d like to believe I and my intellectually curious (and mostly liberal-minded) friends are capable of living in. The hair-trigger between the button and searching for answers is where us sane folks can find a moral victory, as we dismiss a kind of violence that is more disturbing than even that which Jared Loughner created. If we despise Palin and her muddled brand of crass thought, let’s avoid it at all costs, at every turn. She can’t win when the discourse is controlled by those who are smarter than she is and who don’t fall into the traps of foolish association based on emotional impetus. If we want to be better than her, there really is no other way. I want so desperately to know I’m nothing like that stupid, stupid woman, that I must defend her. She bears no responsibility for the events in Tucson.