Monday, January 10, 2011

Rights Without Responsibility

On Saturday the United States saw unfold a terrible tragedy that has left many dead, including a Federal judge and a nine year old girl, and more wounded. Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona only just escaped death by luck and remains in critical condition. Yet this act did not take place in a vacuum. It happened hot on the heels of one of the most vitriolic and downright vicious elections in recent memory. Now this charge may sound hyperbolic until you look at snippets from the 2010 campaign trail with examples like an appeal to "Second Amendment remedies", resorting to the "bullet box" if the ballot box fails, declarations that Obama's election was an assault on America's soul, the urging of "don't retreat, just reload", declarations that the Vietnamese are after "my" seat, and the infamous target map. It cannot be said with any certainty that any one of these acts was what led to the bloodbath this past Saturday. It is highly unlikely that the increasingly hostile political climate, with the flames recklessly and cynically fanned by political personalities, candidates, and elected officials, had nothing to do with the tragedy in Tuscon. If this were an isolated incident, a one-time act by an unhinged individual, then such claims would be over the top, laughable, and easily dismissed.

If only that were the case.

Far from being a single act by a lone gunman Saturday's explosion of violence has much in the way of recent and infamous company. In early 2009 a Pennsylvania man ambushed and killed several police officers out of fear that the new Obama administration was going to take his guns away. A little more than a month later abortion provider Dr. George Tiller, a man repeatedly called a "baby killer" by political pundit Bill O'Reilly, was gunned down in his church. In February of this past year a small plane deliberately rammed the IRS building in Austin, Texas. In August a lone man exchanged fire with California Highway Patrol officers while on the way to attempt to attack the Tides Foundation, a frequent target of the rants of Glenn Beck. October 25th saw the brutal beating administered by a Rand Paul supporter to a MoveOn activist in Kentucky. Most recently, only just on the heels of the Tuscon attack, was today's discovery of the dead body of the Congressional affairs director for Progress Energy in a burning car.

These attacks show a disturbing pattern of violent action rising to meet the siren song of violent rhetoric. Far more troubling is the increasingly cavalier attitude public personalities are taking to the handling of freedom of speech. In none of these incidents, so far, has an apology for previous violent speech been offered. There has been no attempt by the loudest voices to dial back the heat but to stoke the flames to a roaring inferno. All the while the oh-so-objective media has supplied the fuel to these modern day demagogues by giving them coverage without consideration for content and creating sensation for the sake of puffing up ratings. Instead of shunning such radicals, as a civil society should, they have been consistently given the loudest megaphone the broadcast world can find. They rage freely with no concern for the potential consequences of abusing a position of public trust ducking responsibility every time they are cornered.

There is something terribly wrong with this picture. Far from what the old child's rhyme says words have the greatest power of all. In virtually every cosmology the world over speech and writing are of divine origin. Skalds, bards, messengers, and scribes were under divine protection and their speech given great weight. Our ancestors understood that words have the power to undo kings and lay low empires. Our own history validates this. It was not the first shots fired at Lexington and Concord that pushed the colonies to secede from Britain but the bold words of Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson that ignited the hearts of the first American patriots. While bloody battles and the hail of lead would begin and end the Civil War it was the clarion call of the Emancipation Proclamation that truly turned the tide of the conflict and our nation's history. It was the words of Upton Sinclair that led to the creation of the FDA and the soaring dream of Dr. Martin Luther King that lit the night during the battle for Civil Rights in the 1960s. Now we have loud, shrill voices screaming for attention with no regard for the effect their speech may have on society.

This dangerous, reckless attitude has already borne much in the way of poisonous fruit. Our ancestors understood that as much as freedom isn't free rights come with responsibilities. Part of why we keep those rights is because we have a civil society which will defend both our rights and protect those who exercise them from retribution. It is this lack of violence in the political sphere, just as much as the blood and honor of America's finest on battlefields the world over, that secures the blessings of liberty for both us and our posterity. The attack in Arizona is a rare moment where, on the brink of madness, we can stop and pull ourselves back from the abyss.

If we do not pull back from the brinksmanship that dominates our discourse then we will fall into something much worse. Hopefully it will not take another shooting, another bombing, or a Congressman beating a Senator senseless to drive home how serious our situation truly is.

Also published at Pagans+Politics

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