Sunday, January 9, 2011

With belated sanctimony

With belated sanctimony, the opportunists who gleefully exploited the violent imagery of armed patriots rising up against a tyrannical government, thereby seeking to appeal to the childish vanity of political nitwits, now offer their "prayers" and platitudes about a "senseless" act of actual violence.

Now Speaker John Boehner says "an attack on one . . . is an attack on all"; but last spring he was playing the game with the best of them, terming the Obama health care reform "Armageddon" and taunting one Democrat who supported it that he was "a dead man," suggesting the congressman would not dare show his face back in his home district.

When a man flew a light plane into an IRS center in Texas last February, killing a dedicated federal employee and military veteran, Republican Steve King of Iowa declared that he felt "empathy" for the kamikaze taxpayer. (King explained that he, too was "frustrated" by the IRS, and suggested that these things would not happen if we adopted a national sales tax to replace the income tax and the IRS. The following month, the congressman was whipping up the crowd at a tea party rally shouting, “Let’s beat the other side to a pulp! Let’s chase them down! There’s going to be a reckoning.”)

When the offices of ten Democratic congressmen — including Rep. Gabrielle Giffords's — were vandalized and shot up last spring, Eric Cantor, now the No. 2 Republican leader in the House, saved  all his outrage for the victims of the attacks. The Democrats, he fumed, were merely trying to gain political advantage by revealing that they had been the targets of violence. 

Sarah Palin, whose infantile play-acting of pistol-packin' mama had included a map on her website with little cross-hairs "targeting" the congressional districts of Giffords and other Democrats singled out for elimination, offered her usual crocodile-tear prayers as well. I generally have a lot of tolerance for the faith of others even though I don't comprehend it, but I must say if I were the families of any of the victims I would tell Sarah Palin where to shove her prayers. All I could think of was the last words of the American Indian chief who was offered a final chance to convert to Christianity and thus be spared burning at the stake by his Spanish tormentors; he declined, saying he was afraid if he did so he might go to heaven, and meet only Christians there.

A few of these moral midgets have stuck to their guns even now. The founder of the Tea Party Nation organization mumbled the standard platitudes about "senseless violence" but then quickly made it clear that the real danger as far as he was concerned was that "the hard left" would try to use the attempted assassination of a Democratic congresswoman and the slaughter of a distinguished Federal judge appointed by a Republican president, a 9-year-old girl, a 30-year-old staffer, and three elderly retirees, "for political gain" — just as he claimed "the left" did after the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, carried out by a right-wing anti-government conspiracy theorist.

(I see Palin has now also taken about two nanosecond to revert to type, with a top aide indignantly telling a right-wing talk-radio host that it is "obscene" to use the "tragedy" in Tucson to score political points — meaning against Palin. Her host offered the view that this is what you would of course expect from "depraved liberals." I may be wrong about this, but doesn't the Christian religion include somewhere the idea of  repentance for one's transgressions?)

To his credit, John McCain, whose moral sense has often seemed to go AWOL in recent years, offered the strongest and clearest grasp of the moral realities. He avoided that weasely word "senseless"; he eschewed any hint of the smarmy have-it-both-ways "while of course I . . ." utterances of the Boehners and Cantors and Palins of this world who up until now have always found ways to pour gasoline on the flames even while sanctimoniously expressing their disapproval of arson. (Boehner last spring tut-tutted about shooting up the windows of congressmen's offices, helpfully suggesting that such "anger" be productively redirected into helping elect Republicans).

McCain by contrast said simply and immediately, “Whoever did this, whatever their reason, they are a disgrace to Arizona, this country, and the human race.”

It is an old question in American politics why we have so many violent nuts in our history. But what is remarkable is that for a nation that went through a revolutionary founding, a brutal Civil War, and periods of enormous social upheaval, we have had remarkably little political violence of the kind that has sent other nations spinning into fascism, communism, dictatorship, ethnic slaughter, and hell. American leaders have for the most part understood how fragile democracy is, how vital it is to uphold the system even while denouncing its temporary incumbents, how precarious is the trust that a civilized society depends upon.

But a few times in our history, notably during the violent white supremacist opposition to Reconstruction and to equal rights for African Americans, violence overtook democracy with remarkable ease. Then too the victims were blamed; then too it was those who protested the outrages who were accused of exploiting their very victimhood for "political gain"; then too leaders winked and shrugged and excused and smirked as they rode the wave of violence that first subverted and then supplanted the political process.

The unstable young man who opened fire yesterday, it is already clear, was more of a nut than a political agent. But to those who would suggest that political violence is just some random occurrence, a meteorite falling from the sky and claiming its victims by chance, I would suggest they look to the way that delegitimization of democratic institutions, inflammatory and demagogic appeals to what our founders called "passion" over reason, and glorification of brutality have ever been the handmaidens of the descent to hell of once-civilized societies.

What we have seen in the last few years is not the usual political theater of opposing candidates who put on histrionic performances at election time and then are great pals off-stage; what we have seen is an ugliness and a willingness to play with fire that is something different — a willingness on the part of too many on the Republican side to pull down the temple itself if they calculate they might be able to salvage more of the ensuing rubble than the other guys. The Arizona sheriff in whose jurisdiction the shootings took place noted the unprecedented rise in death threats against all public officials that has taken place lately. The Secret Service does not talk about threats against the President but credible reports make clear that President Obama faces threats on a scale unlike anything ever before encountered.

Never mind even the childish braggadocio about "second amendment solutions" and "lock and load"; the daily inflammatory rhetoric about "tyranny" and "the end of freedom as we know it" and even the name "tea party" itself, invoking revolutionary resistance to despotism, have accelerated an unprecedented delegitimization of the democratic process itself, a suggestion that those who advance opposing viewpoints are not just political opponents but usurpers.

It is not enough for Eric Cantor and his ilk to express consternation that the tiger they tried to ride has got away from them, and what a bad tiger it is. They're the ones who need to put the tiger back in its cage, and in a hurry.