Wednesday, 12 January 2011

Arizona and the blame game

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The tone of political debate in the United States at present is certainly enough to make you glad for the Dave/Nick/Ed humdrum we're treated to here in the UK. But was it responsible for the horrific murder of six people by gunman Jared Lee Loughner in Arizona last weekend? I have no way of knowing, but then neither do the people looking to apportion blame through various channels in the US. It is, of course, standard media practice to descend into speculation from almost the very moment a tragedy occurs. A plane crashes, so an "aviation expert" takes wild guesses as to why on 24-hour news. A series of apparently linked killings takes place, and we're subjected to conjecture about the childhood abuse the perpetrator endured before the police have even had chance to identify their suspects.

The Arizona shootings come with the added potential for commentators on one end of the political spectrum to attribute blame to their opponents on the other. So on the one hand some on the American left are suggesting part of the blame may lie with the rhetoric of the Tea Party, and more specifically a map endorsed by Sarah Palin which marked, with gun targets, constituencies "targeted" by the movement in the recent congressional elections (the Arizona constituency of congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, who is fighting for her life following Saturday's attack, being one of them). And on the other, some right-wingers are casting around for evidence that Loughner is of a "liberal" persuasion – one of his favourite books, we are told, is The Communist Manifesto (that famous liberal tract), an argument somewhat weakened by the fact that the list of favourite books on his YouTube page also features Tea Party favourite We the Living by Ayn Rand, alongside a selection of other books that includes Animal Farm, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, Gulliver's Travels and Mein Kampf.

All of which, of course, doesn't move us any closer to knowing why Loughner acted as he did (it has also been helpfully pointed out that he smoked pot and read Nietzsche in college, which just leaves the question of why millions of others haven't followed that combination through to its deadly conclusion), but this isn't preventing people from trying. Some right-wing Christians have, perhaps inevitably, jumped upon the suggestion that Loughner was an atheist - according to a piece on the Mother Jones website, he listed his religion as "none" when he applied, unsuccessfully, to join the army in 2008. So far discussion about atheism seems largely limited to internet message boards (as a quick Google search for "Jared Loughner atheism" shows) but, as Religion Dispatches reports, (see this link also) talking heads from the religious right are stepping forward with their views on how Loughner's apparent non-religious views led to his actions last Saturday. In a way it reminds me of the tiresome "Was a Hitler a Catholic or an atheist?" debate - as though somehow having a mass-murderer on the "side" is a moral blow to the millions or billions that share that metaphysical outlook.

As with the political point scoring, it's all rather self-serving, and does nothing to illuminate the situation or aid the victims of the atrocity. I think you could say the same of most speculation that takes place in the immediate aftermath of tragedy - was Columbine caused by heavy metal, was Fritzl the result of Austria's history? Many have pointed to the words of Jon Stewart who, as he so often does, struck the right note in his response to the events in Tucson. Political discourse in the US may have become overly toxic, but to suggest that Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck, or the millions of people who form the wider Tea Party are somehow to blame for Jared Loughner's actions is a step too far. The same goes for other aspects of the blame game - I'm sure there's satisfaction to be had for those who feel they're putting one over their perceived opponents, but that's about the only thing being achieved.
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