June 11, 2009

Rhetoric and Violence

Obviously, the Holocaust Museum murders yesterday were awful. They were the act of a deranged individual acting on hateful beliefs and the only consolation for the deaths of innocent people is that their murderer was swiftly neutralized and will do no harm to anyone else ever again. It is difficult to muster any sympathy for the killer, who seems to have gone out of his way in his lifetime to have made himself a despicable individual before confirming that with the bitter manner of his exit.

The issue, though, is not horror and shock and condemnation of the murders. The question is whether this guy was some kind of a militant right-winger in addition to being a white supremacist; whether he was pushed over the edge, in whole or in part, by intemperate rhetoric; whether his actions vindicate the DHS report forecasting domestic terrorism by right-wingers upset at the direction of the political tide.

I must conclude that, in this case, no evidence is offered to support these more recent propositions. This guy was a kook, plain and simple; the fact that he was a kook of a flavor that shifted more right than left is largely irrelevant. It's worth noting that in addition to drinking from the Obama birth truther kool-aid, he also wrote extensively of his hatred of George W. Bush, John McCain, and neo-conservatives. The DHS warned of embittered veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan engaging in domestic terrorism -- this guy was in his eighties and had not served in many years. Lack of sympathy to Jews and Israel is a problem shared by the left more than the right; the weirdo right wingers in this country embrace Israel as a friend (in part because they want to see Israel go through its prophesied conversion to Christianity as part of the events of the End Days). Anti-Semitism and holocaust denial are nutty extremes of thought that can be found on either end of the political spectrum. It is Democrats and not Republicans who have been faster to hold Israel to task for its overstepping of boundaries along the road map to peace by creating West Bank settlements. And this guy's particular brand of kookiness comes from stuff that is very old indeed, and has little to do with the wingnuttery floating around these days.

Which is not to say that intemperate rhetoric (from either side of the spectrum) is welcome or a happy addition to the wares available in our marketplace of ideas. Nor is it to say that anti-Semitism is not a problem, or that all conservatives can be exonerated from anti-Semitism by virtue of their conservatism. And it does not refute the DHS's foreboding prediction. If anything, the recent murder of Dr. Tiller, the abortion-providing doctor in Kansas, vindicates the DHS prediction of right-wing domestic terrorism. That crime is more fairly called domestic terrorism since the shooter in that case is quite explicit about his desire for his action to change behavior on the part of others (to make them stop performing abortions) and law (to make abortions illegal).*

No, what happened in Washington yesterday was a simple crime, not an act of terrorism. Crime is very much on the decline in this country and has been for a long time. But we will never be free of it. No society on Earth is now or has ever been free from violent crime and we have no reason to predict a future in which it will ever be different, no matter what laws we pass or what miracles technology brings or how economic conditions change. We can look out for one another and try to be active about getting people who seem to be on the edge steered towards professional help so they do not engage in violence. We can try to identify such people and even gun rights advocates would not object to keeping firearms out of the hands of the mentally imbalanced. In other words, all we can do is our best.

I offer small consolation here to the loved ones of yesterday's murder victims, I realize. My sympathy for them is very real. What I'm hoping to point out is that this act of violence is probably not appropriate to consider as a sigificant political event; this was not domestic terrorism. It was a violent, senseless murder. An awful, terrible event. And so are murders committed during bank robberies and drug deals gone bad. The pain of the victims of those "ordinary" murders is no less real than the pain felt by the survivors of yesterday's victims.

And if it was intended to be political, then isn't the ultimate delivery of failure to a terrorist the act of disregarding him as politically irrelevant?

* That, in turn, does not mean that other pro-life advocates are similarly criminals; there is nothing illegal about their use of words to advocate political change even if their goals coincide with that of Tiller's assassin. Bullets are different than words and we ought to punish their use to effect domestic political change.

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