Back in early April, in the disturbing aftermath of the passage of the healthcare bill, which included acts and threats of violence against members of Congress, I wrote two posts about the dangers of the violent rhetoric permeating the political culture (here and here).
And now a member of Congress has been shot.
As news personnel compulsively remind us, we don’t know the exact motives of this shooter. We do know that he seems to be deranged.
But that doesn’t mean that this is merely a random act with no political significance.
We take it for granted that political leaders can inspire good with their words. Many thousands, maybe millions, of baby-boomers cite JFK’s inaugural challenge (“Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country”) as the reason they went into the Peace Corps, or the military, or some other form of public service.
No one claims that Kennedy “created” idealistic people. But we do accept that his challenge helped channel their existing idealism into particular forms of service—because leadership matters.
Yet, when something awful happens, we suddenly resist the idea that the rhetoric leaders use can take the evil that exists in human hearts and channel it in a particular direction. Over and over we are told that this troubled person was going to do something awful and there was nothing anyone could do about it.
Perhaps. But we do know that this particular troubled person chose a political leader to whom he had access as his target. We know his rantings, however incoherent, had political overtones. To pretend that the toxic political atmosphere of the last two years had nothing to do with how his derangement was channeled is the worst (and most dangerous) kind of denial.
Some people seem to get this. Contrast the words of new House Speaker John Boehner now with his words then. In the wake of the incidents back in March (including an attack on the offices of Rep. Giffords), Boehner appropriately said "violence and threats are unacceptable." But he also added: "many Americans are angry over this health care bill, and angry at Democrats here in Washington for not listening." In other words, he could not limit himself to condemning the violence; he also blamed the victims. (Rep. Giffords was one of those Democrats who voted for the health care bill and who, in Boehner’s words, did not listen.)
Saturday, he rightly said: “An attack on one who serves is an attack on all who serve. Acts and threats of violence against public officials have no place in our society.” There was no “but you have to understand the anger” qualifier this time. He should have had the same clarity back then that he belated has now. It should not take a shooting to show “leaders” that you should never, in any way, excuse violent rhetoric and political violence in a representative democracy.
An assassination is the utter abnegation of democracy. It is one person thwarting the will of the electorate. It is, in that sense, the ultimate tyranny. We can only hope and pray that the demagogues and opportunists who have recklessly thrown around the word “tyranny” to describe the workings of a duly elected government for the last two years will now have the decency to keep their paranoid rantings to themselves.