It’s no fun having the flu. This week, I hope you will accept a bit of recycled material from another blog I keep for random thoughts. It is several years old, but tragically, not at all out of date. Regular readers of this site know that whatever the topic, even if it is about politics or history, or the quirks of human behavior, I always manage to conclude with a call to reform education. Not so with the following. But feel free to draw your own conclusions.
(originally posted January 13, 2011)
Last weekend, a man named Jared Loughner shot 19 people in Tuscon, Arizona parking lot, including a member of the U.S. Congress, Gabrielle Giffords, who was apparently the primary intended victim. While we will probably never fully understand what went on that day in the desert, the compelling story of the incident includes many themes that ring in the American consciousness: violence, heroism, madness, and the innocence of childhood. The story also has drawn the country once again into the swirling cesspool of political finger-pointing. The combination of identifiable political viewpoints (in this case, anti-government extremism) and striking evidence of mental illness on the part of the shooter made it impossible to resist, I suppose.
The poisonous politics of objectifying and vilifying your enemies is the order of the day, and while blaming the folks who appear to be on the same side of the political spectrum as Jared Loughner has some cheap-shot appeal, sober minds will conclude that the act of a mad man is not representative of a political philosophy — not here in America.
But consider how this and similar stories are usually told.
Did you notice how Jared Loughner is crazy, Ted Kaczynski was delusional, Eric Rudolph was unbalanced, and Timothy McVeigh had no moral compass? All of these guys had mental problems. They identified their motives as ideological, but the public was excused from taking their ideas seriously because they had Fruit Loops in the cranium. It turned out that the severity of their disease was proportional to the political need to punish them.
Thus, McVeigh was nuts, but not so much that he could avoid criminal responsibility for his acts, and he was executed. Americans don’t shy away from executing the insane, we just don’t like to brag about it. We also don’t mind ignoring mental incapacity when it comes to incarcerating notorious killers instead of treating their disease. We tend to do what the level of public outrage demands. But we don’t accept ideology as a plausible explanation for violence by Americans against Americans.
On the other hand, 19 men who went on a suicide mission in September 2001, and numerous other hapless suicide attempters who have been apprehended since have not been treated the same way in the press. Despite clear indications of mental disease (for my money, desire to die is stronger evidence of insanity than desire to kill) these guys have been identified as cold-blooded actors in a terrorist conspiracy. It was not insanity but ideology that made them want to kill, we are told.
But rather than attempting to understand the belief system that supposedly drove these people to violence, we are told that it is not worth the effort. The men are perfectly rational, but their ideology is crazy because, after all, it revolves around mass murder. If anyone suggests that people in other parts of the world might have a bone to pick with some U.S. policies, we are encouraged to brush it off as part of that looney and dangerous terrorist rhetoric.
This is all nonsense. There are justifications for taking human life — accident, self-defense, mercy for the terminal and suffering — but people who claim to be motivated by some ideology to kill strangers are mentally ill. Their actions neither vindicate nor invalidate their claimed belief system — they are not responsible proponents of any rationale they have for murder because, clearly, they are irrational.
What is more telling about all this is the people who line up on either side of the ideology in question. Who uses these criminals’ actions to attack their political enemies? Who calls for retribution? Who expresses sympathy with their cause while condemning their methods? Who expresses admiration for their actions, and their cause, while declining to act violently themselves? Forget the crazy people. What is the real motive of the rational people who step up to weigh in? Instead of vilifying each other, why not use this as an opportunity to understand an opposing set of ideas or perceptions?
Terrorism is just the most flamboyant symptom of dissatisfaction felt to some degree by nearly everyone. “My taxes are too high.” “My religion is not respected.” “My family is living under occupation.” “I wake up every morning afraid I am going to die.” Most Americans live on the mild end of this spectrum, but fear and feelings of powerlessness are tangible realities to most of us. The fact that any of us lives in this condition is the business of all of us, whether or not we indulge in the luxury of ignoring it.
We need to learn to take these problems seriously, even if they are “not my problem.” We need to hear each other’s real concerns and do what we can to reduce needless pain. We need to stop focusing on crippling our enemies, and rediscover our shared humanity.
We may not be able to stop the murderous impulses of the insane, but we stand a good chance of reducing the insanity of day-to-day life.
But in this political climate, I don’t expect it to happen any time soon.