A shocking act of political violence has turned our politics in on itself. The attempted murder of a Congresswoman who had endured many threats and survived a number of frightening situations begs to have made sense of it. The gunman appears to be nothing more than a lone nut acting out his own mental illness, but that doesn’t change the pressure placed on our politics by tough, violent talk over the last several years. What can we possibly make of it?
A step back is essential when something like this happens. I’d like to do my part to make sense of what is often called “senseless.”
The first question is whether this was an act of “terrorism.” I do not think that is exactly the right question. We talk a lot about “terrorism,” but the term itself is a bit hollow and self-centered. The affect of political violence is that we run scared, terrified, because everything we hold true is being threatened. But that is not the central issue at hand here.
Calling an act like this “terrorism” places emphasis on what the act does to us as a people rather than look at the cause. The intent of political violence is to somehow change policy through violence. It can take many forms, including assassination, riots, and even warfare. Like nearly any other political action, we do not get a handle on it by focusing on what it does to us — we have to focus on why someone thinks this is an acceptable way of bringing about the change they desire. If Machiavelli gave us anything, it is the understanding that politics is all about understanding the motivations of others, not just ourselves.
Whether or not this lone nut is a “terrorist” is not especially productive. Understanding what, if anything, he wanted to change is much more useful — and why he thought that a gun was the best way to do it.
The more popular reaction to political violence is the call to calm the rhetoric and lose the very chic tough-guy talk. “Don’t retreat, reload” is an example of this kind of stuff. I can tell you that people who have experienced violence in their own lives rarely talk this way, at least casually — that talk comes from a cushy life where speaking and acting this way rarely has real consequences of any kind. Like most of our politics, it has its roots in a popular culture that bumbles along without any real direction other than being bored, frustrated, and generally isolated from what happens in the real world.
A generation of Americans served proudly in World War II and many of them were swept up in the violence that changed the world. It was a cause far bigger than the stacks of mangled corpses that marked their daily progress through the conflict. They generally went on to be the most expressive generation yet, including such imaginative writers as Rod Serling and Kurt Vonnegut. They didn’t write about casual violence, they wrote about the pathways of the mind that created the violence that was around them.
The popular culture defined by that generation wasn’t about how you fake being tough — they’d seen the real thing.
Those who want to bring our nation back to the values framed by our Founding Fathers should pay a lot more attention to what they want to emulate. Those who have seen the horrors of war may or may not recoil from them, but they do not use that kind of talk lightly. That’s left for pretenders who are bored by a soft life apart from real struggle.
What sense should we bring to this “senseless” act? That political violence has no place in a free and open society, but that we have to analyze apart from our own self-centered reaction to it. The gut feeling that we must respond with tough talk centered on violence works against everything that we supposedly value. It threatens the freedom to walk down the street unafraid that a generation genuinely hardened by violence very deliberately crafted.
The problem is not in our politics, but our politics is a reflection of the sickness of our world. Those who think violence is kewl and exciting rarely are the people who actually experienced it firsthand. They are pretenders and should be labeled as such. Allowing space for that kind of talk dishonors the people who actually suffered to make our nation what it is and what we are supposed to fight for.