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The Exploitative Rhetoric of Tragedy
If rhetoric is to blame, then what shall we do about it?


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Jonah Goldberg

In the wake of the horrendous shooting rampage in Tucson, why isn’t anyone talking about banning Mein Kampf? Or The Communist Manifesto? Or for that matter, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and The Phantom Tollbooth?

After all, unlike Sarah Palin’s absurdly infamous Facebook map with crosshairs on congressional districts that some pundits have blamed for the violence, we have some evidence — suspect Jared Lee Loughner’s own words — that these books were a direct influence on him.

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And to listen to partisan ghouls such as Keith Olbermann exploiting this horrific crime, any rhetoric or writing or images that contributed to it must be stopped, and those who don’t accept blame and then repent (specifically Palin) must be “dismissed from politics.”

Note: It’s apparent from evidence found by the authorities and from interviews with the alleged killer’s friends and acquaintances that Loughner has fixated on Arizona congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords since 2007, long before anyone heard of the “tea parties” or, in most cases, Palin. Moreover, his grievance with Giffords appears to be unrelated to any coherent — or even incoherent — ideological platform. Rather, it drew on the bilious stew of resentments this young man cultivated as he lost his grip on reality.

Indeed, according to a fascinating interview in Mother Jones with one of Loughner’s close friends, this twisted soul was apparently an ardent believer in “lucid dreaming” in which he could control an alternate “‘Matrix’-style” reality.

Something similar seems to be taking hold in more respectable quarters. New York Times columnist Paul Krugman insists he wasn’t surprised this happened because he saw it coming, even though the facts in this dimension don’t support his premonitions.

But rather than beat up on those who’ve migrated from the reality-based community, it might be worthwhile to take them at their word.

If these people seriously believe that the tea parties and Palin’s “lock and load” rhetoric are to blame, then what shall we do about it?

It’s hard to find a serious answer to this question. For most of these ideological ambulance chasers, it seems enough to lay the blame at Republican or right-wing feet in an effort to anathematize ideas they don’t like.

But that’s shortsighted. Misplaced panics like this have a momentum and logic all their own. Already, Rep. Bob Brady (D., Pa.) has drafted legislation to ban the use of symbols (crosshairs on a map, for instance) or language (“lock and load!”) that could foster violence. “The rhetoric is just ramped up so negatively, so high, that we have got to shut this down,” he told CNN.

That opens the bidding. The question is, where will it end?

If the alleged shooter had been inspired by a movie or TV show — as any number of murderers have been over the years — would those blaming the tea parties join with social conservatives in blaming Hollywood? Would they celebrate new laws to “shut down” such fare?

Mark David Chapman, who murdered John Lennon, claimed to be inspired in part by Catcher in the Rye. Should that be banned? Or if not banned, should we “dismiss” from public life anyone who doesn’t denounce J. D. Salinger?

When the subject of censorship or the “chilling” of free expression comes up in other contexts, the very idea that books, movies, or TV can be blamed for the actions of the criminal or the deranged is met with unbridled scorn. I actually disagree with that. If books can inspire us positively, surely they can inspire us negatively, too. But we understand that we don’t blame books for the rare demons who feed on them.

No doubt this will cause eye-rolling among those who simply want to keep the focus on demonizing conservatives and never bother to think ahead about the consequences of their misplaced hysteria. One noble exception is Slate’s Jack Shafer, who probably goes farther than I would when he writes, “Any call to cool ‘inflammatory’ speech is a call to police all speech, and I can’t think of anybody in government, politics, business or the press that I would trust with that power.”

Meanwhile, many proud liberals, not to mention dedicated journalists, see no problem with fueling a mass panic over our “political discourse.” The fact that liberal rhetoric and images are often just as “extreme” is irrelevant. Also irrelevant is any violence that might be linked to such rhetoric. And the fact that the shooting suspect’s motivations may lie in a reality of his own design? That’s irrelevant too.

These critics’ aim is simply to exploit this horror as an opportunity to yell “shut up” at their political opponents.

— Jonah Goldberg is editor-at-large of National Review Online and a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. © 2011 Tribune Media Services, Inc.



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