Reflections on American Political Violence
I don’t know how coherent this blog post will be. The events are too close. But writing is therapeutic for me.
As I write this, Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ) fights for her life after surgery. She was shot in the head earlier today by an assassin who used automatic weapons. 19 people were hit with gunfire and 6 have died (as I write) from this event, including a 9 year old girl and a federal judge (previously threatened) who had ruled against the horrible “Show us your papers” anti-immigrant law passed in AZ last year which allows police to arrest anyone for “looking like an illegal immigrant” (i.e., giving open season on brown people who may be of Mexican heritage). Last year, Rep. Giffords’ Tea Party-backed opponent hosted an event that invited people to shoot targets with Giffords face attached. Former half-term AK Gov. Sarah Palin(R-AK) had put gunsite crosshairs over Gifford’s face along with other Democrats her Political Action Committee was “targeting.” Hiding behind the 1st Amendment’s guarantee of free speech, the irresponsible “Mama Grizzly” claims it was a metaphor and that she had no intention of creating an atmosphere of violence and fear in which nutcase followers could “exercise 2nd Amendment solutions” (i.e., kill people) when not achieving the desired results at the ballot box. Political violence in the form of rightwing domestic terrorism has returned to the United States.
It has a long history–no doubt one of the legacies of a nation birthed by violent revolution. Yet many other countries had violent origins without having the long legacy of assassination, attempted assassination, and related political violence that has dogged the history of these United States. Four (4) U.S. Presidents have been assassinated (Abraham Lincoln; James Garfield; William McKinley; John F. Kennedy). Six other presidents survived assassination attempts (Andrew Jackson, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin D. Roosevelet, Harry S. Truman, Gerald Ford (twice), and Ronald Reagan), not including the attempts foiled prior to any gunshots, including two so far on President Obama. Presidential candidates like Senator Robert F. Kennedy (who almost certainly would have beaten Richard Nixon for the White House in ’68 had he lived) have also been assassinated, as have numerous other elected officials throughout our history. On 22 May 1856, Rep. Preston Brooks (D-SC) used a cane to beat Sen. Charles Sumner of Massachussetts into unconsciousness on the Senate floor for giving an anti-slavery speech. Sumner was so injured, he was unable to resume his duties as senator for 3 years. Meanwhile, because Brooks broke his cane in the assault and battery, South Carolinians sent him dozens of new canes engraved with the words “good job.” Political activists such as Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, and Harvey Milk have also been assassinated in this country.
Sometimes in our history most of the political violence has been from leftwing groups such as the Weather Underground of the late 1960s and early 1970s. But in recent history, the threats and violence has been from the Right, as documented here.
In fact, during my childhood in the U.S. South (during the struggle against segregation) the numbers of Civil Rights activists who were killed ran into the hundreds and those injured by mob violence or police violence were too numerous to count. Many of the perpetrators have never answered for their crimes. Many were repeatedly freed by juries even after openly bragging of their crimes.
I’m not going to argue that such violence is wrong. That’s too easy. Not only my own pacifist Christian faith, but almost every moral and religious system in the world condemns such acts–though many of those who claim to follow such systems violate them and commit these atrocities anyway.
I want to say only a few things: 1) The violence fits the true definition of “terrorism.” The intent is to create an atmosphere of fear and suspicion of others. The intent is to intimidate. This is true no matter who uses these tactics: Preston Brooks was trying to make abolitionists, especially abolitionists elected to Congress, afraid of speaking out against slavery. Lynchings were “to keep N@##ers in their place.” Violence against Civil Rights activists was for the purpose of making them too afraid to keep taking on segregation. During the feminist movement in the 197os, signs held that said things like “All You Gals Need is a Little Rape!” were meant to silence women pushing for the Equal Rights Amendment. When abortion clinics are bombed, the intent is to frighten women who might seek abortions and to frighten doctors who might perform them. When politicians are burned in effigy or treasured symbols are burned or harmed, the intent is to intimidate and inflame passions. The same is true when hate speech is used that includes violent metaphors–even if some like Sarah Palin are too stupid to know what their followers might do with their words.
2) The intimidation often works. Although abortion is still legal in this nation (and that legality has been supported by a majority in every poll but one since Roe v. Wade was decided in 1973), clinics where abortions are performed are much rarer. Many medical schools are afraid even to teach what would be necessary to perform a safe and legal abortion. (This does not say anything about the moral merits of legal abortion. I’m simply talking about the violent tactic used to get results one cannot achieve by democratic means.) Since AZ’s passage of its demonic “walking while brown” anti-immigrant law (and 14 other state legislatures are looking to copy this law unless the courts intervene), many LEGAL immigrants and even citizens of Hispanic heritage are afraid to even go to the police when threatened because they may be “thought to be an illegal immigrant.” They certainly are less likely to be organizing politically when afraid to even leave the house. Whether Rep. Giffords lives or dies, fewer progressive candidates will stand for office out of fear for themselves, their families, or for innocent 9 year old bystanders. (New Speaker Boehner (R-OH)’s attempt to say that an attack on anyone in Congress is an attack on all of them is wrong. This attack strengthens his hand and his party by depriving Democrats, especially progressive Democrats, of one more vote and one more articulate voice for our concerns. That deprivation was the point of the attack.)
3) Because of 1 & 2, such political violence is the enemy of representative democracy and the rule of law. In place of law, we put vigilantes with guns. In place of abiding by election results; in place of public debate and discussion, we put assassination attempts, bombings, threats, implied threats and an atmosphere of fear.
Don’t let the fear and hatemongers win. Stand up and be counted as Gabrielle Giffords has done. Stand with her–whether you are a Democrat or Republican (or Libertarian or Green or Socialist or Natural Law Partymember, etc.). Political and social conflict can be a good thing. I do not fear debate. I think we are better off for healthy debate. But threats and lies and innuendos and propaganda are NOT the same thing. That way leads to the spiral of political violence that can doom this country. Stand up, speak up and walk together, children. Refuse the madness of the way of the gun and the way of hate speech and the way of violence. Link arms and march together. Tell the hatemongers of whatever political stripe that WE WILL NOT BE MOVED!