One of the many problems with the “what influenced the gunman?” discussions after brutal crimes like today’s shooting in Alexandria is that it attempts to shoehorn logic and rational thought into an inherently illogical and irrational mind. The implication is that millions of people who had nothing to do with the gunman’s actions are somehow partially responsible for the crime.
Thinking back to 2011, the Tucson shooter was a paranoid schizophrenic who was obsessed with mind control, brainwashing, and linguistic grammar being part of a vast, dangerous conspiracy. There was never anything connecting him to the Republican Party or conservative thought, but Paul Krugman wrote: “It’s true that the shooter in Arizona appears to have been mentally troubled. But that doesn’t mean that his act can or should be treated as an isolated event, having nothing to do with the national climate.” But after extensive investigation, the Tucson shooter’s actions indeed had nothing to do with the national climate. Even if no one had ever spoken ill of President Obama, Gabby Giffords, or Democrats, the shooter would have had the same paranoid, senseless, dangerous state of mind, the same belief that whatever troubled him could only be solved by pulling the trigger and taking innocent lives.
We recall the Columbine shooters being allegedly driven by violent video games and movies, Oklahoma City being blamed on talk radio, etc. There’s this recurring pattern of looking beyond the perpetrator of a violent act — actions that are inherently unhinged and irrational – and pointing to some other factor and saying, “ah-ha! That’s the REAL reason this occurred.” It feels like a none-too-subtle effort to shift public ire towards a convenient scapegoat, like Sarah Palin’s Facebook page, heavy metal music, violent movies and video games, nutty conspiracy theories about child trafficking in pizzerias, etcetera. Never mind that 99.99 (insert as many 9s as necessary) percent of the people who encountered the exact same media, messaging, or idea did not respond by going on a homicidal spree.
Yes, the Alexandria shooter volunteered for Bernie Sanders and felt a furious hatred towards Republicans. But there are thousands of Sanders volunteers and millions of Americans who fume out their political opponents and who will never hurt anything more than a fly. Bernie Sanders has many flaws, but he has never said, “go kill Republicans,” and it does not appear to be in his character. Criticize the Vermont senator for his actual flaws, not the actions of a man he probably never met and whose actions he never encouraged or endorsed.
Is “assassination chic” like Kathy Griffin’s photo shoot awful? Yes, and it deserves to be called out as beyond the pale. But Kathy Griffin, for all of her flaws, didn’t tell this guy to go shoot up Republicans playing baseball. The shooter made the choice. Hold him responsible for his own actions; don’t be so quick to throw away the concept of individual responsibility in the hunt for some convenient political points.
Political passions are not an inherent stepping stone to violence. No matter how satisfying it is to claim that the latest outrage proves that the majority of the opposition is enraged bloodthirsty maniacs, it remains a lie.
We are now trapped in a cycle where conservatives feel unfairly blamed for the “climate of hate” after the Tucson shooting and are eager to play the same card against liberals. It’s hard to begrudge the feeling, but it doesn’t make it any more true. At at some point, if the cynical claim that impassioned political speech causes violence is used frequently enough, people will start to believe it – and attempt to restrict it.
This guy did enough damage today. Don’t let the First Amendment be collateral damage, too.