After Stuff Happens

The politics of Jared Loughner’s attack on Rep. Gabrielle Giffords in a Tucson supermarket are just starting.  It’s not the event itself that matters so much as the positioning after the fact.  Political figures try not to waste crises.

Advocates used the Soviet Union’s launch of Sputnik in 1957 as an excuse to increase funding for higher education in America, and provide scholarship aid to students.  (Full disclosure: The National Defense Student Loan helped me get a college education.)  It fundamentally altered the educational landscape in the United States, increasing math and science education in general, and access to higher education dramatically.

The high school shootings at Columbine provoked explanations of the tragedy ranged wildly, variously emphasizing the lack of prayer in the schools, the scourge of homosexuality, the availability of guns, and the nihilism of heavy metal music and video games.  To my knowledge, significant policy reform of any kind did not follow.

President George W. Bush used the horrific attack on the World Trade Center, nearly a decade ago, to legitimate enhanced security measures at American airports and the invasion of Iraq.  It might have been used to improve health care in American emergency rooms or support foreign language instruction in the United States as well.  It wasn’t.

The devastation that Hurricane Katrina brought to New Orleans could have been used to legitimate public investment in infrastructure.  It wasn’t.

An addled young man’s plan to assassinate a sitting member of Congress is an extraordinarily unusual event, not something predictable or traceable to a simple cause.  But when public attention fixes on such an event, activists, advocates, and politicians try to make sense of it, filling the space around the event with their interpretation of the world.

Condemnation of the attack has been universal, of course, but what follows that initial statement of grief varies a lot.  Many commentators (including me) have pointed to the vitriolic rhetoric of Tea Party activists, pointing particularly to Sarah Palin’s Facebook map noting districts ripe for Republican gains with gunsites.   (Palin has since, rather disingenuously, explained that the markings were really surveyor’s symbols.)

I can’t believe that Sarah Palin wanted to inspire supporters to take up arms when she called upon them to reload.  Nor do I think that Giffords’s Tea Party opponent in the last election, Jesse Kelly, wanted his supporters to open fire in the streets when he held a fundraiser at a shooting range.  They used colorful language associated with campaigns and social movements, expecting that their audiences would understand their theatricality and hyperbole.  And almost all of them did.

Sarah Palin has since used the shooting to emphasize her commitment to peace;  Glenn Beck shared a private exchange of emails with the former Alaska governor, in which both expressed their distaste for violence.  Palin wrote:

I hate violence…I hate war. Our children will not have peace if politicos just capitalize on this to succeed in portraying anyone as inciting terror and violence.

I expect that Palin and others, without disavowing or apologizing for previous comments, will be more guarded about the metaphors they use–at least for a while.

In deploring the violence, some partisans have been unable to resist reminding audiences of their grievances with Rep. Giffords and the Democrats more generally.  On Talk of the Nation, Randy Graf, the Republican nominee for Giffords’s seat in 2008, reviewed how appalled he–and others–were at the health care reform bill she supported.

Reviewing the scattered public evidence of Loughner’s life, a few creative critics have tried to find partisan politics, pointing to the presence of Ayn Rand or The Communist Manifesto, or Mein Kampf, on his list of favorite books.   Tea Party Nation’s Judson Phillips sees a threat against the right:

The left is coming and will hit us hard on this. We need to push back harder with the simple truth. The shooter was a liberal lunatic. Emphasis on both words.

But finding any kind of coherent ideology in Jared Loughner’s troubled life is a fool’s errand.

Making politics out of the event, however, is quite another matter.

Thus far, generic calls for civility continue, often followed by specific criticisms of political opponents as threats of various sorts.

Just now, we’re also starting to see some attention to the environment in Arizona where it’s much easier to get guns legally than in most of the rest of the United States, and where the state’s ongoing budget crisis has resulted in radical cuts to community mental health services.

There are, mercifully, very few people like Jared Loughner.  But they live in the same rhetorical environment as the rest of us, finding similar access to firearms or medical care.  The odd event gives advocates the chance to remind us about what our world is–and could be.

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About David S. Meyer

Author and professor of Sociology and Political Science at the University of California, Irvine
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One Response to After Stuff Happens

  1. Pingback: Making sense of tragic events | Politics Outdoors

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