The hate that kills

Posted on: 10 January 2011 by Alexander Hay

As this weekend's tragic events in Arizona show, we must be careful where our rhetoric takes us.

The Tea Party's rhetoric is strident, but perhaps also too inflammatory for its own good

America is an unstable nation. That should not, however, always be seen as a bad thing. A country in flux is much more able to generate new ideas, resolve problems in an innovative way and throw up individuals who can achieve great things. If America were to become stable, or stagnant, it would soon fall apart - the dynamism and the instability are in fact one and the same.

But this instability can, if fostered in the wrong way, be a profoundly dangerous thing. The same nation that came up with the Declaration of Independence and was first to place a man on the moon also stands out for shocking race politics and violence.

This brings us to this weekend's tragic events in Tucson, Arizona. In the wake of the shootings that left six people dead and congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords critically injured, it should be remembered that apparently senseless violence always has its roots in something broader, and that to dismiss it as 'mindless' or 'meaningless' lets rather a lot of people off the hook.

Like the suspect himself, Jared Lee Loughner. Painting him as a deranged loner with a grudge is perverse as it dismisses him and his alleged crimes as simply the knee-jerk actions of a madman. Of course, spree killers reveal a lot about themselves by who they shoot at, and very few fire on those who can and will fire back, much in the same way that Ian Brady and Peter Sutcliffe never targeted Judo black belts. What they all have in common is that their murderous behaviour didn't simply appear out of nowhere but was the end destination of a long, often predictable process.

Where does this leave America? Considering the nature of the shootings, it would be naive in the extreme to not consider a political motive. Giffords, a Democrat in a fiercely Republican and politically dysfunctional state, who voted for 'Obamacare' and was vilified and threatened as a result, was in hindsight in great danger. 

The toxic right wing rhetoric of the past few years must surely play a part, as its vitriol and absolutist 'them and us' mentality is by its very nature, violent in tone and vehemence. Nor will the current right wing ideology of division and angry self pity ever going to lead to anything but trouble. 

Some might say at this point that any link is mere speculation. The actions of those on the hard right in America is, however, telling. For example, Sarah Palin's attempts to cover up her use of inflammatory gun imagery, including representing Giffords' seat with a crosshairs, or the frantic attempts by the right wing media to portray the suspect as a loner with no link to them beyond some shared views taken to extremes. Others go so far as to paint the hated left as the real causes of the shooting, which if nothing else shows how malleable reality can be when you despise your opponents so utterly and without restraint.

Yet by definition, rhetoric that fosters a climate of hate and hysteria will always end in bloodshed. The Tea Party's constant use of gun imagery and allusions to an inevitable violent showdown with the Government is also, shall we say, unfortunate. It is all symptomatic to a corrosive tribalism that has taken roots on both sides of US politics, but which has reached its swivel-eyed, thuggish and belligerent apogee on the right. In war, one objectifies the enemy in order to rationalise the violence that takes place between him and you – but the same level of objectification is now the rule in American mainstream politics. The kulturkampf, which has raged since the 1960s, now has real bullets being fired. 

The great tragedy here is that events like this distort not only the world, but its own view of itself. Take away the screaming, headbanging demagoguery and it's plain that most Americans are either Liberally Conservative or Conservatively Liberal. But as America staggers on under the weight of a post-recession landscape and a war without end, it might help if the enmity and blood feuds were replaced something more rational. 

As that most controversial of Republicans, Abraham Lincoln, once said, 'A house divided cannot stand'. He was of course later assassinated by a zealot, for whom hate justified everything.

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Alexander Hay

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