Monday, January 10, 2011

A Sense of Fairness


Photographs of Jared Lee Loughner

The shooting in Arizona this weekend that left six people dead brings up the question of how to fairly characterize the 22-year-old man accused of the crime.

Is he mentally ill, or is he simply reacting to the political incitement of Republicans? Which portrayal is fair?

I think Stacy McCain has it right. He sees the situation with Mr. Loughner as “a portrait of a young man’s slow-motion slide into mental illness.”

Our culture sees it differently.

News stations from CNN to CBS link the shooting to a map used by Sarah Palin to show which Congressional seats could be moved from Democratic Party control in 2008. While this may seem innocuous, the theme that CBS and CNN present is that Republicans must be censored for their violent thought.

To some people, this is a stretch in logic. Unfortunately, it is a narrative embraced by our culture.

We see it in the first reports of the shooting. The Sheriff of Pima County, Clarence Dupnik, knows the problem: “It’s the vitriolic rhetoric that we hear day in and day out from people in the radio business and some people in the TV business.”

We know who these “people” are. They are Republicans.

Our culture seems to appreciate people like Representative Robert Brady, a Democrat from Pennsylvania. Congressman Brady says he is going to introduce legislation that makes this kind of incitement by Republicans a crime.

We can be assured that the Brady legislation will clearly make a distinction between the types of maps used by the Democratic Party to clarify its political goals from those used by Sarah Palin to incite people to violence. The re-introduction of the Fairness Doctrine cannot be far behind…

OK, my rhetoric is a little over the top. The arguments in this area of political discourse are noted for their subtlety.

If you look at the coverage by CBS and CNN on the idea that Republicans are inciting people to violence, the references are merely informative and suggestive. It may be jarring to see that a mass murder has occurred in Arizona, and a map created by Republicans is what is offered as a potential cause, but the voiceover within the segment includes all the necessary legal disclaimers.

It brings to mind the pharmaceutical advertisements we see on television. The image is of people using the medication and enjoying a pleasant life, but the fast-talking voiceover tells you that the medicine may cause liver damage, internal bleeding or death!

Do we sense the conflict in the advertisement between risk and reward? I don’t think so. There is a theme we take from the pharmaceutical commercials, and it is not that the medicine will harm us. Similarly, we may be told that the anti-Republican messages are just for our consideration, but the imagery is powerful and unsettling.

I see this as a cultural issue. The early reports of any tragedy are where we see the cultural themes being presented. As time goes by, the messages might get tempered, but the early reports are what reinforce the cultural point of view. That’s where people speak freely, safe in the knowledge they are supported in their cultural beliefs.

Compare the Arizona shooting to the recent massacre in Alexandria, Egypt where 21 Christians attending Mass were killed in a car bomb attack. From afar, we might sense this as another effort by Islamist radicals to cleanse the Middle East of Christians. However, that’s not what the Egyptian culture sees. A popular point of view in that part of the world is that it is the fault of the “Zionists.”

Here in America, we might look at this and say, “Wow, that’s anti-Semitic!”

However, from inside a culture, that’s not what you see. You affix blame to the group your culture traditionally targets for hatred.

Luckily, we haven’t seen much of that in America…

UPDATE 1/11/2011:
In the post above, I make the point that "The arguments in this area of political discourse are noted for their subtlety."  Representative Diana DeGette (D-CO) gives us a good example of this in today's Denver Post:

Denver Democrat Diana DeGette said positions she has taken in Congress, most recently during the battle over health care reform, have resulted in threats against her. She said she has reported them to police in Denver and in Washington. DeGette vowed to continue constituent meet-and-greets and said she will evaluate threats on a case-by-case basis.

She said that officials who use violent rhetoric to stoke their supporters' anger should consider the effect their rhetoric might have on someone who is unhinged.

"I think it is time to take down the rhetoric in this country," DeGette said.
Compare this to the language she used in the debate over health care reform last year.  Here are some excerpts from an earlier post on the subject:

Republicans support a healthcare system that harms people such as “my childhood friend who lost his insurance when he got prostate cancer and later died too young.” Similarly, Republicans endorse insurance provisions that “exclude children like my own young daughter Francesca who have chronic conditions.”
Note that there is no violent language involved, just the intimation that Republican actions lead to death and dispair.

I think the subtle theme that "Republicans Are Bad People" is a far more devastating attack than any map with Congressional Districts targeted.  (Oops!  There I go, another Republican using words like "attack" and "targeted.")

The idea that our culture accepts this characterization of Republicans as a "given" is what causes me concern.  We focus on censorship when we should be focused on something much larger and more significant.

UPDATE 1/13/2011:
Charles Krauthammer's 1/12/2011 column in The Washington Post provides a reasoned perspective on the political nature of the Arizona shooting.  He has not yet come to the realization that the targeting of Sarah Palin is a form of persecution, but that might be a good subject for a follow-up column.

UPDATE 5/9/2011:
Power Line directs our attention to more anti-Christian violence in Egypt.

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