The revolution has cuh-um (kill the pig!). Time to pick up the gu-un (kill the pig!). Back in the ’60s, the Black Panther Party’s chant was a staple of protest marches, including, ironically, those against the Vietnam War.
I was chanting as loud as anyone else. I was angry. I was frustrated. Every time 100,000 antiwar activists showed up in Washington, it seemed, the president responded by escalating the combat. A letter I wrote around that time rationally weighed the pros and cons of dropping out of college, becoming a full-time activist — and, yes, “picking up the gun.”
I never did pick it up. In fact, the macho posturing — and lethal acts — perpetrated by my so-called comrades and the authoritarian brutality of “national liberation” movements elsewhere in the world turned my stomach and broke my heart. By 1978, when the formerly principled antiracist activist Jim Jones led 909 people to their suicides, I was becoming a pacifist.
Yet, like the folks who may or may not have lent a narrative to Jared Loughner’s inchoate rage, I had contemplated achieving my political aims — justice and peace! — by blowing something or someone to smithereens.
America is a violent country. It makes sense that our political culture should be violent, too. “No other country with a population of over 50 million has had as high a number of political assassinations or attempted assassinations,” reports the website Digital History. After the violence in Tucson, Arizona Republican congressman Trent Franks expressed his wish that there had been even more violence — “one more gun that day, in the hands of a responsible person.” Other “responsible” citizens apparently agreed. According to the FBI, the day after the massacre, gun sales jumped 60 percent in Arizona and 5 percent nationally.
The U.S. government is also a violent actor. Steadily losing its global economic preeminence and moral suasion, America has come to rely on its supersized military to sustain its power. The U.S. incarcerates more people per capita than any other nation in the world; it is the only Western democracy that still imposes the death penalty. If his lawyer does not succeed in winning an insanity defense, Loughner will surely be sentenced to execution.
The American Left has perpetrated its share of violence and given a language of justification to criminal crazies — Jones, the Symbionese Liberation Army and Ted Kaczynski, to name a few. But it is not violent on principle — quite the contrary. The anarchist bombings and assassination attempts of the 1920s were desperate (and ultimately counterproductive) responses to the intolerable conditions of laboring people, whose meetings and strikes were broken up by police clubs and hired thugs’ guns. Much of the Panthers’ violence (including the shooting deaths of nine police officers) was in defense against a brutal federal crackdown, which left 10 Panthers dead and many more wounded. The party’s members were mostly busy feeding free breakfasts to ghetto kids and teaching African American history to their parents.
Besides, you could understand their frustration. The Panthers’ demands were the same goals African Americans and socialists had been fighting for since at least the 1930s. No. 10 of the Party’s Ten Point Program summarized the first nine: “We want land, bread, housing, education, clothing, justice, peace and people’s community control of modern technology.” Reasonable demands, still unmet.
Historically, most of America’s political violence has come from the Right. This is not an aberration; it expresses a tenet of right-wing ideology: that force — from spanking to preemptive war — is the right way to solve problems. Those who don’t subscribe to violence as a response to every situation nonetheless hold to the “right” to commit it as a bottom-line principle of Americanism. Hence the Tea Party’s call to arms to defend the right to take up arms. Maybe such a person exists, but I’ve never met a right-wing pacifist.
Gun waving and inflammatory language contribute to acts of violence, whether the actor is “sane” or, like Loughner, psychotic. But there’s another, less obvious link between today’s right-wing libertarianism and political violence.
University of California linguist George Lakoff calls it the “punitive” worldview of conservatism. Basically, your life is your own; your personal misfortune is your own fault. To religious conservatives, woes such as drug addiction and unwanted pregnancy are the wages of sin — and sinners deserve what they get. Economic conservatives such as the Tea Partiers are less deliberately punitive. Their radical individualism would simply result in policies of malign neglect of the poor, the hungry, the elderly, or the merely unlucky.
To conservatives, sociological, economic or political explanations for sad lives or bad deeds are excuses, plain and simple. Ecce, Rush Limbaugh’s diatribe against the “Democrat party,” which is “attempting to find anybody to blame but” Loughner and painting the killer as “the latest in a never-ending parade of victims brought about by the unfairness of America; the bigotry, racism, sexism, homophobia [and] mean-spiritedness of America.” And Sarah Palin, in her weird self-defense against the “blood libel” of “journalists and pundits,” quoting Reagan: “We must reject the idea that every time a law’s broken, society is guilty rather than the lawbreaker.”
In this light, when conservatives deny any part of moral responsibility for the Tucson shootings, it’s not just hypocritical posturing. While moralists may blame violent video games or heavy-metal music for Columbine or Tucson, libertarians have little patience with the notion that media kills (here I agree with them). Indeed, for all their professed patriotism, the Tea Partiers are nihilists where collective life is concerned. Like Margaret Thatcher (and Reagan), they believe “there is no such thing as society,” only individuals.
The worldview that leaves people to sink or swim on their own can lead to punishing pain, too — for instance, when unemployment benefits or food stamps are cut. But the belief that every person must survive alone has another, paradoxical, effect: It lets individuals, including rash policy makers like the gun fanatics in Arizona’s statehouse, off the hook when somebody gets hurt. Only someone who imagines a world of individuals with no effect on one another could declare, as Arizona Republican state representative Jack Harper recently did, “When everyone is carrying a firearm, nobody is going to be a victim.”
We may never know what combination of inner and outer voices convinced Jared Loughner to open fire. He may indeed be the “deranged, apparently apolitical criminal” Palin claims he is.
Still, the Right has blood on its hands. Its demagoguery, lies, and vilification of liberals, immigrants and the black president are inspiring many more deeds than this one horrific act of violence.
Organizations that follow right-wing social movements, such as Political Research Associates, point to the alarming rise in xenophobic, white supremacist and antisemitic domestic terrorism since Barack Obama’s election. Rachel Maddow reported last week that the brick thrown through Gabrielle Giffords’ home-district office window was one of many hurled that weekend into the offices of Democrats who voted “yea” on health care reform. The former head of a right-wing militia in Alabama claimed credit for the nationwide vandalism, which he’d advocated on his website.
But it’s not just the violence that right-wing rhetoric explicitly advocates — the “Second Amendment solutions” and insanely permissive gun laws, the border vigilantism, Supermax prisons, and shock and awe — that threatens people’s safety and well-being. An ideology that figures all of us as independent actors, without common interests or mutual obligation, lets us fail to do the best for each other.
It also invites us to do the worst.