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Political Violence

A shocking act of political violence has turned our politics in on itself.  The attempted murder of a Congresswoman who had endured many threats and survived a number of frightening situations begs to have made sense of it.  The gunman appears to be nothing more than a lone nut acting out his own mental illness, but that doesn’t change the pressure placed on our politics by tough, violent talk over the last several years.  What can we possibly make of it?

A step back is essential when something like this happens.  I’d like to do my part to make sense of what is often called “senseless”.

The first question is whether this was an act of “terrorism”.  I do not think that is exactly the right question.  We talk a lot about “terrorism”, but the term itself is a bit hollow and self-centered.  The affect of political violence is that we run scared, terrified, because everything we hold true is being threatened.  But that is not the central issue at hand here.

Calling an act like this “terrorism” places emphasis on what the act does to us as a people rather than look at the cause.  The intent of political violence is to somehow change policy through violence.  It can take many forms, including assassination, riots, and even warfare. Like nearly any other political action, we do not get a handle on it be focusing on what it does to us – we have to focus on why someone thinks this is an acceptable way of bringing about the change they desire.   If Machiavelli gave us anything, it is the understanding that politics is all about understanding the motivations of others, not just ourselves.

Whether or not this lone nut is a “terrorist” is not especially productive. Understanding what, if anything, he wanted to change is much more useful – and why he though that a gun was the best way to do it.

The more popular reaction to political violence is the call to calm the rhetoric and lose the very chic tough-guy talk.  “Don’t retreat, reload” is an example of this kind of stuff.  I can tell you that people who have experienced violence in their own lives rarely talk this way, at least casually – that talk comes from a cushy life where speaking and acting this way rarely has real consequences of any kind.  Like most of our politics, it has its roots in a popular culture that bumbles along without any real direction other than being bored, frustrated, and generally isolated from what happens in the real world.

A generation of Americans served proudly in World War II and many of them were swept up in the violence that changed the world.  It was a cause far bigger than the stacks of mangled corpses that marked their daily progress through the conflict.  They generally went on to be the most expressive generation yet, including such imaginative writers as Rod Serling and Kurt Vonnegut.  They didn’t write about casual violence, they wrote about the pathways of the mind that created the violence that was around them.

The popular culture defined by that generation wasn’t about how you fake being tough – they’d seen the real thing.

Those who want to bring our nation back to the values framed by our Founding Fathers should pay a lot more attention to what they want to emulate.  Those who have seen the horrors of war may or may not recoil from them, but to a person they do not use that kind of talk lightly.  That’s left for pretenders who are bored by a soft life apart from real struggle.

What sense should we bring to this “senseless” act?  That political violence has no place in a free and open society, but that we have to analyze apart from our own self-centered reaction to it.  The gut feeling that we must respond with tough talk centered on violence works against everything that we supposedly value.  It threatens the freedom to walk down the street unafraid that a generation genuinely hardened by violence very deliberately crafted.

The problem is not in our politics, but our politics is a reflection of the sickness of our world.  Those who think violence is kewl and exciting rarely are the people who actually experienced it firsthand.  They are pretenders and should be labeled as such.  Allowing space for that kind of talk dishonors the people who actually suffered to make our nation what it is and what we are supposed to fight for.

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10 thoughts on “Political Violence

  1. Calling these clowns out as pretenders is exactly right. Anyone who is a real conservative is respectful of those who serve our nation in any way. They would never make idle threats and generally act like jerks.

  2. I don’t know if it makes me more sad or angry that it has come to this. I don’t care if he is a ‘lone nut’ or what, people have to stop talking the way they have been.

    If it wasn’t obvious that someone was going to be shot it should be by now. can’t we talk about our differences without threatening?

  3. Anna, let’s do our best to not be angry. I think sad is pretty reasonable, but I’d like all of this to tone down dramatically. I’m especially upset by the fake tough-guy talk because it’s clearly more about what’s fashionable and hip than anything remotely real, but I don’t think all the heated stuff is not doing us any good.

    You and I both know that nearly everyone, left and right and however you want to divide us, thinks Washingtoon is more of a problem than a solution right now. Nearly everyone I know is looking to solve problems at a more activist level, state and local. The pretenders who want to talk tough would have a lot more friends – and get a lot more done – if they cut out the pop-culture BS and acted like what Dale rightly calls “real conservatives”.

    Until then, they are just idiots and tools. I say we call the pretenders what they are.

  4. I served in the Persian Gulf and I agree totally. In the middle of a firefight no one is talking tough or even acting tough, they are just doing their job. It’s second guessing after that gets you if you let it.

    I don’t agree with a lot of what is going on in Washington. But we don’t fix it by talking tough, we do what we can. If politicians aren’t doing their job we have an election to get rid of them. Thank God we live in a democracy and we do it that way.

  5. I don’t find it all surprising that one such as Mr. Loughman might possibly have been inspired by the “tough-guy” rhetoric that permeates the air waves and the intewebs and yet be relatively apolitical; he seems to have his mental demons. Sadly, expecting the “tough-guys” to dial back their rhetoric is expecting more than they appear to be capable of.

  6. In general, I agree with the sentiment. I just read Grant’s memoirs, and was surprised to learn he didn’t even swear, (according to him, at least). I think it points to a manner of carrying yourself that is worth emulating. I certainly came away respecting him more than the press caricature of a whiskey drinking general.

    The only thing I might disagree with, is that tough talk signifies soft living. I’ve known some rough characters, and i’ve no doubt they were capable of backing their words. But it was not the kind of talk that inspires, or should be held up as something you’d want your children to emulate, by any means.

  7. Erik, you’ll be interested to know that Foreign Policy has endorsed your views on an early retirement now as an ease for the 11 million unemployed. To help the young, old and those in between.

  8. Dan, have you a link? I couldn’t find it (and I thought I’d sound British, given the nature of the publication).

    I have to start taking credit for some of this stuff if I’m going to make some $$$. Thanks! 🙂

  9. By way of a prologue …

    Thank you all for your comments. I’m re-thinking a bit my original harsh feelings. Most of you know that I have strong feelings about life and death in the middle of the streets and will forgive me for getting a shade emotional about these sorts of things. Everyone I’ve ever known who has experienced violence up close and personal has a very different attitude towards it than what is shown in our popular culture (and what seeps into our political rhetoric).

    “The first rule of the Fight Club is that you don’t talk about the Fight Club.” Yet how many people staring at the screen stopped to realize that the actors they were watching were talking about the Fight Club? That’s the disconnect between fantasy and reality at the heart this problem. Our culture lives vicariously through the fantasies of those who are the best at articulating being tough guys – not those who have proven themselves in some way.

    And so we paint targets on Congressional Districts and think nothing of it. We just don’t live in a world where the white painted lines inside a rifle scope have any real meaning because we aren’t a people who are used to actually pulling the trigger. We fantasize about it instead.

    If that’s what we fantasize about our sense of reality is really twisted. And that’s what our politics comes from – as long as we tolerate this BS.

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