By Jane Lane
The commentators I saw on cable television yesterday who were interviewed about the 89-year-old who shot and killed a guard at the Holocaust Museum went to great lengths to distinguish between true conservatives and “the fringe.” A couple of them even gratuitously added that there are radical fringe elements on the left as well as the right, for example, environmental terrorists. This sort of disclaimer thinking does nothing to address the problem of violence in our society – of the numbers of people who go out shooting, whether it’s a public place or in their home.
The discussion is always about the motive, as if this is purely an individual issue, outside of the context of society, and not a symptom of things that may be wrong in society itself. One of the discussions was in response to the standard question of “what made him snap,” ignoring all of the evidence that this was a man who had been consumed with racial hatred and bitterness all of his life.
One commentator mentioned economic pressures. This is nothing but pulling out the same old line of thought that is standard in the news articles including domestic violence homicides when a man kills his wife (and sometimes children) and then kills himself. What was the motive? What made him snap? Were there economic pressures?
Nothing is going to change as long as the people driving these discussions and reporting them are using the same old dialog interminably cut and pasted into the next article, and the next discussion, and the next cable TV show.
There is a climate of hatred and anger in this country. People who act out their anger do it with violence. The Bush administration fostered fear and hatred of people who were “others” – whether they were the 9-11 terrorists or anyone being scapegoated for them.
The reality created by that administration relied on citizens continuing to be afraid, angry, and vindictive. Now we have an administration that wants to build bridges between people by finding common ground. But the GOP strategy is to be the “Party of No.”
In order to be the Party of No, there must be an opposite party (in this case, the Party of “Yes We Can.”) This party of opposition strategy wasn’t devised since Obama was elected to be president; it is from the old bag of tricks from the 1930s.
What happens when your strategy is to oppose everything the “other side” does? You spend time attacking the people, not the policy. You don’t have to promote positive policy, you just object and obfuscate and obstruct so that the other party can’t get anything done. You don’t limit your attacks to the message, you attack the messenger.
How do you attack people? By reinforcing the very worst in us – our desire to be around people who are like us, and to be afraid of and avoid people who are different. Reinforcing narrow group think, you point out all of the things that make the other side different – their race, their ethnic background, their religion, their beliefs, their culture, their language, their sex, their sexual preference, their lifestyle, their politics, their socio-economic status. All of the things that define them – as opposed to “us” – become not just the things that make people different that we should tolerate in others, but sins, errors, mistakes, wrong, and bad. For example, there is no sympathy for people in poverty – it must be their own fault they’re poor.
We can be intellectually lazy. We don’t have to be open to new ideas. We can reinforce the fences that we felt like building. We can build a wall between our country and theirs. We can make them go home unless they begin talking the way we talk.
We are absolved of any responsibility for others. We are not our brothers’ keeper. We shouldn’t have to spend tax money to help take care of “them” whether that means that we don’t ourselves get access to health care, or mental health programs, or good public schools, or continuing education, or substance abuse programs, or prenatal care, or even bridges that don’t collapse under our cars. We aren’t responsible.
And “they” don’t need rights. Why should people accused of being terrorists be entitled to lawyers, and trials, and courts, and decent prisons? Or not to be tortured? As long as “my group” is strong and right, there is no danger of me being picked up off the streets of America and thrown into a prison or a prison camp without being provided any rights. As long as I know I’m part of the right group, I don’t care if I lose my individual freedom to privacy – who would want to listen in on my phone calls? Or search my home or computer?
So if I don’t need these rights, neither does anyone else.
And my group is right – therefore, we represent the “real, true Americans.”
This was the campaign message of Sarah Palin – appealing to the people who are entrenched in group think and who do not know how their lives are diminished by their xenophobic fear and hatred of everyone else. And who do not recognize that while they proclaim that they are the true patriots and protectors of our country’s foundation, the Constitution, they are the ones undermining it every time they can’t see why they need the rights established in it.
They harp about their “freedoms” without even the most minimal understanding of what those are — except, perhaps, for a misconstrued understanding of the Second Amendment right to bear arms.
And as long as there is also a group mindset on the part of the media that reinforces that violence is an individual abberation, and not a systemic problem, nothing will change. If we can’t see the connection between what we sow and what we reap, nothing will change.