Politics & Policy


Outside the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pa., October 29, 2018. (Cathal McNaughton/Reuters)
The only lesson from the Pittsburgh massacre is that there is no lesson.

The aliens in old science-fiction shows and movies are almost always humanoid: two arms, two legs, and a head, more or less arranged in the pattern of H. sap. That was done partly for the same reason that inspired Gene Roddenberry to wink at physics and create the Star Trek transporter beam: budget. Staging a starship landing for every episode would have been ruinously expensive. In the same way, it was a lot easier to stick some prosthetic ears on Leonard Nimoy or to roll Jeri Ryan around in a bin of old TI-99 parts than to depict something radically non-human. But there was also a dramatic reason: If the crew of the Enterprise encountered intelligent life that was, say, about 500µm in size, didn’t use language, and wasn’t bent on dominating the universe in godlike fashion (the sci-fi version of Original Sin), it would be difficult to get very much drama out of that.

Literary science fiction can afford a little more imagination, because it costs the same to print 200 pages of clever and creative writing as it does to print 200 pages of anything else. In Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game, a tragic and ultimately genocidal war erupts between humans and an alien civilization because each is so radically different from the other that neither realizes that the other is an intelligent species until it is too late. Others have speculated, in fiction and elsewhere, that life (and even intelligent life) from elsewhere in the cosmos might be so radically different from human beings that we likely would not even understand each other as living things.

Some physicists have put forward an interesting criticism of that proposition. The (over)simplified version: We know that life has evolved on Earth, and we know that it has not evolved in the non-Earth-like planets we have observed. It is reasonable to assume that life is more likely to evolve on Earth-like planets, which have the same features and constituents from which life arose on Earth. Because the laws of physics are the same everywhere in the universe, and because all molecules are governed by them, it is likely that life arising from Earth-like constituents in an Earth-like environment would be fundamentally similar to life on Earth. That doesn’t mean that we should expect to see Vulcans with pointy ears and a recognizably humanoid culture, with things like marriage and politics; in complex systems (and evolving life is a textbook complex system) tiny variations in initial conditions can result in radical differences. But if we should happen to encounter living things on another planet, there’s good reason to think they’d be familiar enough for us at least to recognize them as living things, and that they’d likely have biological processes and features that are in some degree similar to that which we have observed on Earth.

Physics is prior to biology, and biology is subordinate to physics. This is one of the reasons physicists can be a little smug — they believe that their discipline is the master key to understanding the universe, and that marine biologists and cancer researchers are just working at the edges. Some philosophers and economists think roughly the same thing, and the intellectual pretensions of 1980s cultural-theory types were really remarkable. The priority of physics to biology can rub some people the wrong way, for the same reason that our current understanding of evolution bugs some people, and not only religious believers: “You are the result of what happens when molecules are arranged in a certain way under certain conditions. Don’t go getting a big head about it.” The sense of inevitability runs up against our sense of free will, free will being an article of faith that cannot survive entirely intact after a little bit of scrutiny. The next time you are sitting around a table with some successful friends — friends who might be feeling just a little bit self-satisfied — ask yourself where any of them would be if they had 20 fewer IQ points, or 50 fewer. Where’d they get those IQ points? They aren’t gold stars handed out for merit. The evolution textbooks and the Bible concur on one important point: You are at the far end of a long chain of events that began with a handful of dust.

Inevitably, people whose lives are dedicated to politics believe that politics is the answer to every question — or at least to every human question. They believe that we are first and foremost Aristotle’s “political animal.” The tendency may be a little more pronounced among modern progressives, with their implicit commitment to the project of perfecting man through the state, but we conservatives, many of us, lean pretty heavily on that, too, for obvious reasons: Politics is something you can influence, and public policy is something you can change — even control, if you have that kind of power. But controlling politics is not the same as controlling the world and the people in it: It’s yelling at your dog on a grand scale — sometimes the dog minds, sometimes it doesn’t. It’s Cuchulain attacking the waves.

Political animals? Sometimes. If we’re lucky. But we are new to politics, and politics is new to us. The oldest written law we know of, the Code of Hammurabi, was set down about 4,000 years ago. Say meaningful political organization goes back ten times that far, to 40,000 years ago. What do we have before that? Hundreds of thousands of years of savagery. Our ancestors diverged from the Neanderthals somewhere between 500,000 and 800,000 years ago. Most of our evolution did not take place in Brooklyn, or amid apple orchards, or even in peaceful little farming villages. Politics is very, very new to us, and social organization brought us out of utter savagery only by degrees, since — inevitably, humans being humans — savagery was the first thing we organized. One of the hot debates among anthropologists for years was the question of whether cannibalism provided a meaningful share of the proteins in the diets of the Aztec elite or whether human meat was only an item of occasional ritual consumption. Cannibalism in ancient Europe was “fairly consistent,” in the estimate of some scholars.

And, with apologies for the lurching shift in tone . . .

“But what about those Trump stickers on the van?”

“Oh, yeah? What about Obama and Farrakhan?”

Et cetera, ad nauseam.

We may be new to politics, but we are not new to violence, which has left its mark on our politics: In May 1856, slavery advocates from Missouri invaded Kansas, burning homes and businesses. Later that month, Republican senator Charles Sumner, of Massachusetts, gave an anti-slavery speech in the Senate, during which he mocked Democratic senator Andrew Butler, of South Carolina; the next day Representative Preston Brooks, a South Carolina Democrat and cousin to Butler, beat Sumner, nearly to death, on the floor of the Senate. Days later, anti-slavery radical John Brown and his sons kidnapped five slavery advocates from their homes in Pottawatomie Creek, Kan., and chopped them to pieces. In July, President Franklin Pierce was obliged to send 500 federal troops to Topeka — with artillery — to break up a political protest against the state legislature by Kansans who believed it had been fraudulently elected. In August, John Brown launched a pitched battle against slavery advocates, throwing Kansas into all-out war for months. That was one summer in Kansas, and what ensued, eventually, was the Civil War. A great deal of political violence ensued, including a great deal of violence in a good cause. It was not President Lincoln’s inspiring oratory that freed the slaves. It was not the Emancipation Proclamation, and it was not the 13th Amendment. Politics and violence are inextricably tied up in one another — and violence is prior to politics.

We are not on the brink of another civil war today, but political violence is a regular feature of our common life. In 1975 alone, Bill Ayers’s Weather Underground comrades carried out at least 25 bombings, part of a years-long campaign targeting the Capitol, the Pentagon, the State Department, and the home of a New York Supreme Court justice who was presiding over hearings in another domestic-terrorism bombing case.

The last 25 years have seen the massacre at Waco, the 1993 World Trade Center attack, the Oklahoma City bombing, the career of self-proclaimed “pro-choice terrorist” Theodore Schulman, Eric Rudolph’s bombing campaign (targeting abortion facilities, gay clubs, and the Centennial Olympic Park during the 1996 Summer Olympics), the attempted murder of abortion provider George Tiller by Shelly Shannon (who was released on parole in May) and the subsequent murder of George Tiller by Scott Roeder, 9/11, the plot by Occupy Wall Street activists to bomb a bridge in Ohio, the D.C. sniper, Antifa terrorism in California, the murder of Heather Heyer at the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, the recent spate of pipe bombings, and more.

And, now, the horrifying massacre in Pittsburgh.

Anti-Semitism has been a familiar theme of American violence, from the Charlottesville rally to the 1984 assassination of radio host Alan Berg by white-supremacist gang the Order, sometimes known as Brüder Schweigen, to the 1991 Crown Heights pogrom, before which the Reverend Al Sharpton, the gentle clergyman with a pulpit at MSNBC, denounced Jewish “diamond dealers” at a memorial service festooned with a banner reading “Hitler Did Not Do the Job.” Before that, it was “bloodsuckers” and “white interlopers.”

But — whatever you are hearing on your favorite cable-news emotional-validation program today — it is almost never the case that some otherwise peaceable, well-adjusted person wanders into a political rally, hears a speech, or gets riled up from a radio rant and then goes and kills someone. Roland J. Smith Jr., the murderer in the Freddie’s Fashion Mart attack (he set fire to the place and then shot himself; seven people died of smoke inhalation), had a 30-year criminal history, from ordinary crimes (illegal gun possession, receiving stolen goods) to offenses with a political character: He’d once renounced his citizenship and gone to jail for refusing to comply with the Vietnam-era draft, and on another occasion had been charged with inciting a riot.

There are continuums of behavior. In May 2014, members of Students for Justice in Palestine at Vassar College displayed a Nazi propaganda poster from 1944, one that depicted Jews as a monster with a bag of money in one hand and an American flag in the other. In August 2014, a Jewish student at Temple University was physically assaulted while debating with members of that school’s chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine. Did the former lead to the latter? If so, how many degrees of separation might we expect? In December, just a few months later, an Israeli rabbinical student was stabbed in the neck outside the Chabad building in Crown Heights. There isn’t any strong reason to see a connection between those incidents, except for the obvious one, i.e. the vein of Jew-hatred that runs like an infection through our history. Some continuums are so long and so broad that observing them tells us nothing useful. Anti-Semitism waxes and wanes, and sometimes explodes into — one wants to say madness, a fever, but that is not quite right: The implementation of anti-Semitic sentiment has only sometimes come in fits of madness, while at other times — horrifying times — it has been pursued methodically, with precision and rigor.

Of course it is the case that culture influences behavior. (That is what it is there for.) One might make a persuasive case that the culture of hip-hop has contributed to violence in black communities, that the culture of the NFL is an incubator for domestic violence, that the culture of Wall Street makes fraud almost inevitable, that the culture of Hollywood countenanced, encouraged, and often celebrated the sort of predatory sexual behavior that has been so prominently discussed in recent months. Harvey Weinstein is not sui generis. Neither is Ray Rice. Neither was Timothy McVeigh. And neither is Robert Bowers. But that does not provide any logical basis for taking a leap from “he attended a rally” to “he committed an atrocity” modified by “consequently” instead of “subsequently.” Even the most thick-skulled, brain-dead political partisan understands this — when it’s his side under the microscope. If the people over at MSNBC truly believed that there is some kind of meaningful moral substance in President Trump’s connection to anti-Semitism — currently in “He retweeted a guy who retweeted a guy” territory — then the Reverend Sharpton would not be in their employ. The Reverend Jesse “Hymietown” Jackson would not be welcome in polite society, and Barack Obama’s photo op with Louis Farrakhan would send him into exile.

There are anti-Semites who support Trump. There are anti-Semites who supported President Obama. That, in itself, does not tell us very much about those men or their political agendas. As Franklin Foer notes in his daft essay calling for the social prosecution of “Trump’s Jewish enablers,” there are many Jews who support President Trump. Which also indicates precisely nothing: Richard Nixon was given to ugly anti-Semitic outbursts and seems to have harbored genuine antipathy toward Jews corporately — and the most important man at his side was a Jewish refugee from Germany. Life does not break neatly along our preferred fault lines.

One of the ironies of the English language is the relationship between the words humanity and inhumanity, human and inhuman, humane and inhumane. We witness acts of horror, or we read about them in the news, and we say: “That’s not human.” We talk about “humanizing” history’s great villains, or the dangers of “humanizing” contemporary malefactors. One can imagine the easy-to-mock headline in some fuzzy-headed magazine: “The Human Side of Osama bin Laden.” (His successor, Ayman al-Zawahiri, in fact eulogized him in just such terms.) But we saw the human side of Osama bin Laden — that his atrocities were somehow “inhuman” is a bedtime story we tell ourselves so that we can sleep at night. The emergence of murderous tyrants is as predictable as the seasons, as is the emergence of murderous non-tyrants. This isn’t something that is subject to control through public policy. There’s a fair-minded and honest debate to be had about firearms regulation (the problem is a shortage of fair-minded and honest debaters), but Americans — not weird cultists overseas, but Americans, us — were carrying out school massacres a generation before Eugene Stoner and Mikhail Kalashnikov made their contributions to the history of engineering. The hideous blots on our history — slavery, all those massacres from Napituca to Wounded Knee — were not the result of anything inhuman. That’s what humans do, God forgive us.

There are not any lessons to be drawn from the massacre in Pittsburgh. There isn’t any political lesson, no public-policy takeaway. There is only unthinkable pain and loss, suffering that must be something close to unendurable, and revulsion for the 21st-century American man who did this. That revulsion weighs on us — and it is suffocating — not because his crimes are alien or unfamiliar, but because they are ordinary and familiar, not because they are unexpected but because they are expected, not because they are unimaginable but because the absence of them is unimaginable. The killer isn’t an alien visitor or an atavistic throwback — he is one of us. That is a truth that is prior to politics. And that he is one of us is the problem that all of our schemes and plans and mere politics must confront, the blast of interstellar cold jolting us awake from our “dreaming of systems so perfect that no one will need to be good.”

Correction: This essay originally attributed the concept of the political animal to Plato.

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