Sunday, January 9, 2011

A Reaction

“When politicians murder countless daily via the military and police it’s a ‘topic for debate.’ When someone murders a politician, it’s a national tragedy. This outbreak of ridiculously disproportionate sympathy for pampered middleclass politicos is the desperate gasps of various privileged classes frantically asserting their exceptional status: ‘This sort of thing should never happen to people like us!’”

The reaction to the shooting of Arizona Democratic Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords yesterday struck me in what it revealed about how we approach violence and murder. Most people don't oppose violence and murder per se. Don't believe me? Ask how many people reacted with horror when the United States government slaughtered innocent civilians in Yemen, including at least 21 children, with cluster bombs. Ask whether there was such furor when Aiyana Jones, a seven year old girl, was killed by a Detroit SWAT team. What about when detainees at Guantanamo were tortured to death? Or footage was released of Reuters journalists being shot from a lurking American helicopter in Iraq?

Many people not only shed no tears over these cases, they argued that those who carried out the homicides were justified.

Could you imagine any mainstream political figure, even Sarah Palin or others whose rhetoric is connected to yesterday's shooting, claiming that the killing was justified?

"All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others," wrote George Orwell in Animal Farm. And that's where we are today. We praise equality and make sweeping moral statements, but most do not consistently believe them. Some violence, specifically violence from the bottom up, violence in which the relatively powerless attack those who are comparatively well off and powerful, is universally viewed with horror. Yet the top down violence, the killing of foreigners, or even of mere mundanes in this country, by agents of government, is often not merely ignored, but commended.

In a truly Orwellian fashion we dehumanize those who are most affected by violence, indulging in vile victim blaming. Guantanamo detainee tortured to death? He was a terrorist. Queer youth subjected to hate crimes and rape in prison? Perverted criminals, the lot of them! The victims of the Contras in Nicaragua? Commies! A man is shot while driving his children to school because he stops to help a wounded man, as we saw in Collateral Murder? "It's his fault for bringing his kids to a battle."

When liberals say that the shooting of Gifford should make us confront the growing violence of our political culture, they're right. They're correct to react with revulsion and horror at assassination attempts against the likes of Congresswoman Giffords and Congressman Tom Perriello, and assassination threats against at least 10 other prominent Democrats. They're right to be disturbed by all the more innocuous violent rhetoric on the right. But our violent political culture is a whole lot bigger than some right wing extremism. Our political system is built on violence, whether it's locking more human beings in cages than any other nation, using torture, continuing to use cluster bombs, being involved in six wars in the middle east, or even the threats of force behind the taxation that funds it all.

Update: Probably my favorite response to this issue was posted by Radley Balko today at Reason Hit and Run. I also really enjoyed this post by Tumblr user Maxistentialist.