Arizona and the Power of Words

Law and Order

While the focus of this blog is meant to be international affairs, occasionally domestic events in America prompt a change of topic; the shootings in Arizona this weekend qualifies as one of those events.  By now you've heard about the work of gunman Jared Loughner, which left Congresswoman  Gabrielle Giffords gravely wounded, killed six others – including a nine-year old child – and wounded 12 others.  Once the immediacy of the shooting faded, talk inevitably turned to the why of the event.  The theory being pushed by many conservative, right-wing pundits is that Loughner was simply a “lone nut”, his actions were wholly irrational, with his rambling online political writings being offered as evidence of his insanity, therefore there is no point in trying to interpret or understand them or his actions. 

It's not surprising that the conservative right is pushing the “lone nut” theory so forcefully since it absolves their fellow travelers - the Tea Party, talk radio and Sarah Palin and her incessant Facebook monologue – of any responsibility in creating the bitterly partisan, openly hostile political environment in America today.  Tea Party rhetoric about the government taking your country away from you, Sharon Angle's barely-masked call for political assassinations (her “second amendment solutions”), Palin's gunsight emblazoned map and “don't retreat, reload” tagline had no effect on Loughner, because he was crazy!

There is a parallel to be drawn from American history between the current reaction to Loughner and the response a century ago to the assassination of President William McKinley by Leon Czolgosz.  In 1901, Czolgosz stepped out of a crowd at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo and fired two shots into the President.  McKinley would linger for 14 days before succumbing to his wounds.  Like Loughner, Czolgosz was quickly branded as a lone nut, his attorneys put forward an insanity defense at his trial; but Czolgosz maintained that his act was overtly political, in his case Czolgosz was deeply influenced by anarchist thought.  While anarchism today may be the realm mainly of angry undergrads, a century ago it was a radical and active political movement within the country, a reaction to the rapid industrialization and urbanization of America at the end of the 19th century.  Czolgosz was an immigrant from Prussia, his American dream quickly faded into a string of menial, exploitative jobs in factories across the Midwest.  He became a devotee of the anarchist thought being discussed in the nation at the time, he viewed his assassination of McKinley as a blow for the common man against the oppressive establishment.

Czolgosz's political motivations were quickly drowned out in the mass media and public consciousness by the “he's just crazy” meme; it was simpler to dismiss him and his actions as unintelligible rather than explore the motivations behind them and take an honest look at how America's “Gilded Age” had been built on the oppression and exploitation of millions.  Similarly today, conservative pundits are bristling at the notion that we actually look at the role the poisonous political environment may have played in Loughner's actions rather than just dismissing him out of hand as an insane individual acting out his darkest impulses (also dismissing the fact that during the past year Giffords had received other threats, her Tuscon office vandalized and a person with a gun detained at another of her rallies) . To take this train of thought to it's logical end leads us to the conclusion that words are inevitably meaningless.  This is nonsense. Words are power, inherent within them are the ability to shape thought and spur action.  A friend remarked after reading a draft of this post that this is precisely the reason why there are laws against inciting others to violence merely through the use of words.

Let's take a quick look at two events from history to illustrate this point.  One of the most heinous crimes in human history was the massacre of six million Jews during the Holocaust perpetrated by Nazi Germany.  Yet the wholesale detention and extermination of Germany's Jews didn't just suddenly happen, the machinery of the Holocaust only went into action after a long and deliberate media campaign that demonized the nation's Jewish population – blaming them (rather than the Treaty of Versailles)  for Germany's economic downfall and portraying them as an amoral force dedicated to undermining the nation and the German people themselves.  Let's move ahead a few decades to Rwanda in the 1990s where the country's Hutu population engaged in their own holocaust against their fellow Tutsis (for some perspective while it took Germany six years to kill six million Jews, an estimated 800,000 Tutsis were killed in just ten weeks).  Again, the country descended into a maelstrom of murder only after a sustained campaign by the government media, particularly the national radio network, branded the Tutsis as an internal enemy out to undermine the health of the nation and the very survival of the Hutus, along with blaming them for the death of the country's president, himself a Hutu.

The recent incendiary political talk – that Congress is trampling on the Constitution, that the President is some sort of Manchurian Candidate dedicated to undermining the nation, that “they” are trying to take your country away from you – cannot be seen as mere rhetoric, but more properly as words cast as weapons meant to fire up the citizenry for some future battle.  Unfortunately in Arizona last weekend, these rhetorical weapons were exchanged for real ones.  It is a situation that demands we at least take a step back and consider the impact words can have.

Sarah Palin, Politics, Rwanda, History