The New York Times hosted an online discussion about "Assassins and American History," asking "Does political speech lead to political violence?" "We can't know," says presidential biographer Robert Dallek, adding that "only one thing seems certain...the ease with which perpetrators can acquire the means to commit mass murder." Jill Lepore calls the question itself "troubling," and asks instead, "Shouldn't we be demanding more than that our leaders' political speech be, merely, not incendiary? Ought it not, instead, elevate?" Oh, for the days of Thomas Jefferson! Steven Hayward of the American Enterprise Institute argues that political speech has often been incendiary without inciting violence, not least in the 1800 presidential election. What assassins have in common, he insists, is mental illness – not political ideas. True, says historian Steven Mintz, but political violence has spiked during “periods of civil unrest and bitter partisanship” throughout American history. Catherine McNicol Stock adds an economic view to Mintz’s assessment, saying that “times of extreme economic and social dislocation create a landscape ripe for political extremism -- expressed in both words and deeds.”
But I think Julian Zelizer sums up my thoughts in this discussion best when he writes, “even without violent consequences, the kind of political acrimony that we have witnessed feeds a dysfunctional culture where citizens and politicians turn their opponents into enemies and vilify those with whom they disagree. This creates the potential for dangerous actions and, at a minimum, makes political dialogue impossible. The fact that so many people instantly wondered about the connection between political speech and the shootings in Tucson suggests that something has gone wrong in the way that we debate political issues. Too much is at stake, and the risks are too high to continue with this kind of toxic political culture.”
Over at Salon, Glenn LaFantasie describes about a long “American tradition of political violence” going back to the 17th century, and argues that this is the legacy of a nation having been born out of a violent revolution. His argument is a bit circular, since as he notes this political violence existed long before the nation of the United States did, but I still think he makes some interesting points.
David Greenberg argues that "of course" the shooting was political, in the same way that many assassination attempts throughout history have been - because there is "an artificial distinction we routinely draw between political and psychological motives."
But the Secret Service disagrees: NPR’s Morning Edition had a piece today about a 1999 Secret Service study of 83 assassination attempts since 1949, in which researchers interviewed the assassins or would-be assassins. The study reached an interesting conclusion: the common theme among the perpetrators was that they felt invisible and believed that killing a political leader would bring them fame and attention. A psychologist who led the study concluded that “It was very, very rare for the primary motive to be political, though there were a number of attackers who appeared to clothe their motives with some political rhetoric."
And finally, in my head I keep coming back to the words of noted public intellectual Ani DiFranco, who wrote in the wake of the Columbine shootings: “and schoolkids keep trying to teach us / what guns are all about / confuse liberty with weaponry / and watch your kids act it out / and every year now like christmas / some boy gets the milkfed suburban blues / reaches for the available arsenal / and saunters off to make the news / and the women in the middle / are learning what poor women have always known / that the edge is closer than you think / when the men bring the guns home.”