The Rhetoric and Reality of Violence

A few weeks ago I asked whether or not the Tea Party is a nonviolent movement. I noted that the vast majority of the actions taken by those who support the Tea Party and helped the Republicans make such significant gains in Congress are consistent with nonviolence (rallies, speeches, voter turnout efforts, etc.). However, the attempted assassination of Representative Giffords, the killing of 6 others and the wounding of 19 in Tucson has led many on the left to spotlight the violent rhetoric of the Tea Party and the politicians and pundits associated with it, Sarah Palin being foremost among them.

The examples are numerous and stunning and there is evidence that right wing violence in general is on the rise. From the perspective of the left, it appears that Republican politicians are winking at nut cases. The memory of the assassinations of the Kennedy brothers and Dr. King has meant that almost everyone on the left I know has, at some point, seriously considered the possibility that President Obama will be assassinated and my conservative relatives have joked on Facebook about him meeting an untimely death.

Yet, I find the reaction to the Tucson shootings somewhat disingenuous and puzzling. No one is arguing or believes that the Tea Party movement is actually planning to mount an armed insurgency. It is certainly the case that of late the right has been more apt to use violent rhetoric. This is at least in part attributable to President Obama’s extraordinary legislative successes. That is, political victories tend to inspire anger and frustration in one’s political opponents, which we often express by talking violently. Let’s be honest: One would be hard pressed to find a committed liberal who at some point in George W. Bush’s presidency did not ponder how the country might be better if he were to die or be killed. In longer perspective, the left has been no less apt to use fiery rhetoric and, indeed, similarly blamed for inspiring assassinations.

President Obama’s speech in Tucson made a plea for elevating the national conversation. To his credit, the President opened up the possibility that we might use this moment to think about our core beliefs. But honesty about our own propensity for violence will be required to do so. The American double standard when it comes to condemning violence is so rich that it can perhaps only be understood in absurdist or comedic terms. The President upheld this double standard, arguing that some events are inexplicable and, quoting Job, that evil simply happens. His biblical reference underscores a core belief held by most Americans: an armed citizenry, a robust military and a punitive criminal justice system are the necessary and just buffers against inevitable evil.

The President also offered beautiful and touching remembrances of those who lost their lives and a moving call for us to live up to the vision of citizenship we teach 9-year olds such as Christina Taylor Green. But one wonders how he would have explained to her that he will return to the White House to approve drone strikes that kill people with equally inspiring and heart-rending stories. What Lauren Berlant calls “infantile citizenship” will not cut it in this case because citizenship means having a realistic understanding of the problems and possibilities of human life so that deliberation can take place. The President’s message in Tucson, asking us to reexamine our beliefs about violence, can be sharply contrasted with his Nobel lecture where he asked us to accept that evil requires us to respond to violence with violence. The President’s belief that being the most heavily armed country in the history of the world fosters peace and stability is much like the vision of citizenship embraced by 9-year girls and boys: sometimes you have to fight the bad guys.

What the President, George Will, and those who attempt to distinguish between “real” assassinations and random, inexplicable (and the implicitly inevitable) actions of “crazy people” are missing, is the extent to which we have clearly developed a culture of mass shootings. Which raises the question: Is there a politics of nonviolent resistance that can confront the culture of mass shootings? Our national story about how violence works is that we can turn good violence against bad. We hope that the police or the military will be there to protect us when criminals or terrorists attack. Better yet, we have always been fascinated by the idea that some armed and ready citizen or vigilante will ensure evil is thwarted. Millions of Americans keep guns in their homes because they believe that a large enough portion of their fellow Americans are so depraved and criminal that it is their best form of protection and they hope to protect their homes with good violence. The NRA insists in an all or nothing fashion that any and every kind of weapon must be available to every American for just this reason.

However, Americans are perhaps on the path to figuring out the best response to such disasters in the moment they happen—something that is arguably the most difficult problem for pacifists concerned with mass shootings and terrorism. What we have seen in this circumstance, perhaps in part inspired by the passengers on Flight 93 on September 11th, 2001, is a new kind of response and citizen awareness (which is perhaps becoming an international culture). Ordinary citizens have begun to count on the fact that most people are peace loving and use their overwhelming numbers to subdue the few of us who become violent. These acts of extraordinary self-sacrifice were carried out by former military men who were unarmed, a 61-year-old woman with no military training and an intern. They were similar to the sort of thing Gandhi recommended in response to violence. It is remarkable that those whose friends and loved ones were killed by the attacker, and could have been killed themselves, did not kill or maim the perpetrator. Instead, their response was to subdue the perpetrator, tend to the victims and then come together as a community to mourn and heal. Indeed, we have even found it in our hearts to listen to and empathize with Mr. Loughner’s parents and perhaps Mr. Loughner himself, in that President Obama mentioned in passing the state of our mental health system.

The example of those who responded to the shooter should give us hope because is shows that something along the lines of nonviolence—power exercised without destroying others—is viable even in the most difficult circumstances. And it should inspire us to vigorously interrogate all of the other ways our belief in the possibility of good and useful violence exacerbates suffering here and around the world.

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