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Welcome to the Terrordome

2011 January 9

Always the pain, the chaos of composition. He could not find order in the field of little symbols. They were in the hazy distance. He could not clearly see the picture that is called a word. A word is also a picture of a word.
Don Delillo

Then one day I get enough sensibility to realize a white dude who can’t write–read and write do not make policy.
Dick Gregory

In the hours after Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ) was shot in Tucson, Arizona, users of social media were outraged by the previous use of gun imagery directed at her, not to mention the vandalizing of her office as a consequence of her vote on health-care legislation. While attempts to tamper violent metaphors are appropriate in the aftermath of such an attack, they may obscure a wider point: as it relates to the coarsening of political discourse, the investigation of the Tucson Massacre doesn’t matter as much as we think it will. A critique of the violent imagery will have to stand on its own, whatever it’s role.  I don’t any more accept Toni Morrison’s assertion that “Oppressive violence does more than represent violence; it is violence” than I believe that Mark Twain’s use of the word ‘nigger’ in Huck Finn is hate speech. (For those who want to be pedantic, let’s just admit that the use of the word “campaign” is a dead metaphor.)

Also , given the still volatile ground of facts, assuming one is concerned with such things, responsible observers should display restraint and resist the compulsion to reflexively derive political meaning from mass killings. (On second thought, maybe Muslims were not in fact responsible for the Oklahoma City Bombing, though that was too late for Sahar Al-Mawsawi and her baby boy.) I agree with many commentators, particularly on the right,  who plead that attempts to make sweeping analysis so soon after the incident are premature and “cheapen” the magnitude of what happened.

However, let’s not forget that we’ve been down this road before. Lest we forget: a mere five hours after American Airlines Flight 77 struck the Pentagon, Donald Rumsfeld was planning strikes on Iraq; According to Paul Wolfowitz, plans for an invasion began only two days later. The members of the once and future reality-based community know how the story unfolded (imploded?) Once again and bit louder: “Let’s by all means grieve together. But let’s not be stupid together.”

Though it’s hard to accept, the lives lost on 9/11 were also cheapened by politics; it was used a tool to smear political opponents of the then administration, even those taken along for the ride. The tragedy here is that the violence of 9/11 was not only used for crude partisan gains but also as a justification for more violence. To what extent can those who steadfastly believe in the use of violence for political ends in good faith criticize those who seek to politicize violence?

Many of those who have taken up the portrayal of violence in the media as part of their culture wars paradoxically embrace it as part of their political identity, even to the point of fetishization. (Soldiers are among the few public-sectors workers not scorned by the right, unless they’re gay.) One wonders how you can call opponents “cheese-eating surrender monkeys”, “liberal pansies” and “bleeding hearts”, all terms meant to show their effeminate and conflict-averse nature,  and then claim violent imagery is used equally across the political divide. As Hannah Arendt put it, “Where all are guilty, no one is; confessions of collective guilt are the best possible safeguard against the discovery of culprits.”

Let’s grant the point; certainly George W. Bush was the victim of gross overstatement. But let’s examine  the proximate causes of the greatest opprobrium levelled at the two past presidents:  Bush was called a war criminal for misleading the country into a war and for tacitly endorsing torture; Obama has been labelled a tyrant not for leaving the torture regime in tact, but for attempting to institute universal health-care. I suppose there’s not much to be had between socialized war and something not even approaching socialized medicine.

A further irony is that many of those who are calling for restraint because of the incoherence of the alleged shooter’s beliefs have not been so patient with drawing major conclusion on the basis of nutjobs from a lesser god; Jared Lee Loughner is simply not emblematic of his demographic the way the Jamal Abdur Muhammad would be. One could well imagine the consequences is the alleged shooter was of Mexican descent/origin.

A question which probably will, and should, become more prominent is whether someone considered throughout the political spectrum to be mentally unstable should able to purchase a semi-automatic weapon. To be fair and balanced, it has been noted incessantly that Congresswoman Giffords was pro-gun rights; that’s apparently what they meant by a Second Amendment remedy.

Most of the acts of violence which result from the belligerence of our political culture are not maps pocked by cross-hairs but via language which has been, like many websites in the past day, scrubbed and anesthetized. This rhetoric,  bland and bureaucratized, is less incendiary but more dangerous. The maxim commonly attributed to Stalin is immoral but accurate; it describes a persistent sort of  political reckoning: “A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.”

But still, the concern with the use of violent rhetoric on some political website is warranted when many of the figures being accused of inflammatory rhetoric have in fact advocated actual violence. Heated rhetoric somewhat tangentially related to the death of a nine-year-old in Arizona is threatening; even more so is the propaganda, official and otherwise, that directly leads to the death and torture of a few thousand, somewhere far across the seas.

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