The editorial below is a European take on the overheated political rhetoric that filled the airwaves in this country after last week’s mass shooting in Arizona. It was published in yesterday’s edition of the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten.
Many thanks to our Danish correspondent TB for the tip, and to our Perth correspondent Anne-Kit for the translation:
Words and Violence
In 2004 the American writer Nicholson Baker published his novel “Checkpoint”, in which the main character is plotting to murder the then President, George W. Bush.
A few years later the film “The Death of a President” won the International Critics Prize at the Toronto Film Festival. The film is a blend of fact and fiction including live footage of Bush collapsing after an attempted assassination. During his own incumbency “Kill Bush” T-shirts were available for sale. During the 2008 election campaign the Democrats’ presidential candidate Barack Obama addressed these words to his supporters in Philadelphia, but with the Republicans in mind: “If they bring a knife to the fight, we’ll bring a gun”.
One could continue to quote examples of violence and war metaphors used in the US political debate. It is not a concept exclusive to the political right or Tea Party supporters as one might think by relying on selected US and European media these days, following the mass killing and assassination attempt by 22-year-old Jared Loughner against Democratic Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords in Arizona. This kind of rhetoric has a long tradition, although the emergence of new media and the wall-to-wall coverage of even the most insignificant events could lead to the impression that the tone has been sharpened.
Nor is the assassination of American politicians a phenomenon which is perpetrated solely by one side of the political spectrum. The black civil rights activist Martin Luther King was murdered by a white racist who had an extensive criminal background. President John F. Kennedy was killed by Lee Harvey Oswald, a disturbed Marxist. Kennedy’s brother Robert was victim of a Palestinian Christian’s notion that he had been betrayed by Kennedy’s support of Israel during the Six-Day-War in 1967, and the killer of controversial Alabama Governor George Wallace wanted to do something to demonstrate masculinity to the world. It would seem that political assassins throughout history have endorsed different ideologies, but what most of them had in common was that mental illness and a propensity for violent behaviour. Around one percent of the mentally ill in the US are thought to be violent, but they are responsible for half of all the murders were the perpetrator goes berserk.
This is also the case in this most recent incident. But instead of focusing the debate on how to handle those who are mentally ill and have a propensity for violence and how to stop them from gaining access to firearms, the tragic event in Arizona has been used as a political mud fight. Commentators are busy connecting the murders to the debating culture and suggesting a connection between the political rhetoric and violent episodes, even though there exists no empirical evidence to support this. It is disheartening that an insane young man’s rambling outbursts of rage should be allowed to define a crucial debate about where the lines of free speech should be drawn in an open democracy.
Of course this does not mean that violent metaphors should not be criticized. They absolutely should but not because the result is automatically more violence. No, there is every reason to criticize the violent metaphors because they undermine and destroy the public debate and the quality of the decision-making process. If the tragedy in Arizona were to drown in a political dogfight then the US as a society and a nation would be the big loser.
America does not deserve that.