If It Can Happen Here, It Can Happen Anywhere
January 9th, 2011
As my partner and I were out running errands this afternoon, I snapped this photo along I-10 just south of the Ina Road exit. If you go about three miles to the east from I-10 on Ina, you will encounter the fateful Safeway that is, as we speak, still roped off with police tape and crawling with investigators. The billboard is for Rush Limbaugh’s radio program on local Clear Channel KNST, and it appears on a Clear Channel billboard. Limbaugh’s “Straight Shooter” billboard is festooned with six or seven bullet holes. Given the political climate of the past few years — and especially after yesterday’s events — it’s a damning indictment of what so many on the far right find acceptable in political discourse.
I mean, really. What’s a few bullet holes anyway?
But as we were driving around town, we heard on the radio that the second person of interest turned out to be Jared Loughner’s taxicab driver. The driver accompanied Loughner into the Safeway while Loughner got change to pay the driver. He had nothing to do with the shooting. And with that, the most promising immediate link that may have tied the shooting to extremist right-wing rhetoric has vanished once again.
Let me emphasize: it’s not to say that there is no link. But if there is one, no evidence has been disclosed for it yet. So if someone wants to claim that there is one, they better come up with some sort of hard facts for it. So far, none has surfaced. And believe me, if it does, I will be among the most eager to put that evidence right here.
That’s because, setting aside whatever Loughner’s motivations may be, I firmly believe that because of the political climate exemplified by that billboard, we are living in extremely dangerous times. And whatever demonization taking place on the far left pales, in terms of both the scope and the influence, to the far greater demonization from the far right that is amplified daily on Fox News and Clear Channel. I believe that as strongly as I do that the sun will rise tomorrow morning.
Over the past two years, we have seen border militia members kill Arizona citizens. We’ve seen Arizona citizens demand that other Arizona citizens — whose ancestors have been here far longer than the suspicious newcomers — prove their innocence and right to walk down a street. We’ve seen a governor shrieking about completely imaginary headless bodies in the desert and a state government that has decided that poor Arizonans’ lives aren’t worth life-saving transplant surgeries. People who need a heart won’t find one here. We see a political climate where our president is not only accused of being un-American, but — against all the overwhelming evidence to the contrary — a non-American. We see a cultural climate where “real Americans” can build a house of worship wherever they please, but American Muslims can’t. We’ve seen hysteria over “death panels” coming to kill grandma.
And so, acting on that outrage, a Tennessee man shot up a church because he was angry at liberals, wierdos and homos, and someone in Maryland is mailing explosive packages addressed to Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano. We’ve seen people carrying automatic weapons to rallies and congressional meet-and-greets (another man was arrested at a Giffords meeting last August when his concealed pistol fell to the floor). And we saw literal gun-sight targets drawn over congressional districts, including Rep. Giffords’s.
And so we shouldn’t we be surprised if some nutcase — and not a literal schizophrenic nutcase that Loughner appears to be — decides to take a weapon and perform his “patriotic duty.”
Based on what investigators have disclosed so far, that has not literally happened — yet. Authorities are investigating several angles, but so far what some see as ties to far-right fringe groups remain highly speculative at best. As of this evening it still appears more likely that Loughner was acting at the behest of his own demons rather than of those on the demonizing edges of the far right. This could still change — being mentally ill does not preclude one from being influenced by extreme rhetoric, and may actually enhance the possibility for some — but right now the assertion that our poisonous political culture had anything to do with yesterday’s rampage is still very much unproven, but not extinguished. We may learn more about what was going through Loughner’s shattered mind in the days and months to come. But the more I learn about Loughner’s behavior, the more I’m convinced that he is suffering from the same mental illness that took my best friend in high school and two of my cousins. The symptoms are too specific and too familiar. (Update: I should add that I have no insight into the severity of Loughner’s condition. Being mentally ill with schizophrenia does not automatically make one criminally insane.)
Which means that this is an excellent opportunity for everyone to step back and reaffirm to ourselves and to each other that we are all fellow citizens and patriots of a pretty damn amazing country. If we don’t, I’m afraid — literally afraid — that we will soon fall into an abyss that we may not be able to crawl out of.
Given what we know today, I see no reason why those of us who consider ourselves progressives can’t concede that Palin, Limbaugh, and the others got lucky (if you can call it that) and that they probably aren’t responsible this time. Maybe we can even let them off the hook — IF they can agree that we all need to come together as Americans who all love our country equally, whether we’re on the left, the right or anywhere in between. Because we all need to acknowledge that none of us has a monopoly on loving America. None of us wants to see our nation destroyed. Maybe this can be an opportunity for everyone can drop their torches and pitchforks, and instead resolve to disperse the poisonous fumes that have very nearly ruined us as a people. I see no reason why the right shouldn’t be able to agree to that and change its behavior accordingly, just as I see no reason why the left needs to insist, with hardly a smidgen of proof, that a schizophrenic young man is somehow the far right’s creation. The energy expended pursuing those accusations can be better spent addressing the daunting needs of the severely mentally ill.
My hope is that somehow we can find a way to do that. My fear, though, is that we have already crossed the Rubicon and there is no turning back. And if it does turn out that Loughner’s shattered mind was nudged by either the right or the left, then all bets are truly off.