The Language of Crazy

For the past several months, in these and other columns, I have tried to explain (to myself as much as to my readers) the rising tide of anger and vitriol that seems to have engulfed our country.

I’m not naïve, and I’ve read enough history to know that we haven’t suddenly been uprooted from some past Garden of Eden. There have been plenty of other angry times in our nation’s history; the Civil War was the worst, but hardly the only example. In my own adult lifetime, Martin Luther King, JFK and his brother Bobby were all assassinated. The Sixties gave us the Weathermen and the Yippies, the Chicago police’s display of brutality at the Democratic National Convention, the Kent State massacre and the Watts riots. (It wasn’t all Woodstock and “Flowers in your hair.”) A complete list would fill this newspaper and then some.

But there was something really chilling about the news that an Arizona Congresswoman was shot through the head in an attack that killed several others—including a nine-year old child and a federal judge. Representative Gabrielle Giffords was holding a “Congress on the Corner” event at a local supermarket—one of those predictable, “keep in touch” “meet and greet” events that politicians routinely sponsor—when she and the others were gunned down in broad daylight. As I write this, the Congresswoman is in critical condition following brain surgery; her survival—and if she does survive, her condition—remains in doubt.

In the aftermath of this horrific episode, the national conversation has focused on whether the debased nature of our political rhetoric encouraged a mentally unstable person to take violent action.

Congresswoman Giffords was one of twenty Democrats who had been “targeted” during the off-year elections by Sarah Palin. Palin’s webpage had featured photos showing each of the twenty as seen through crosshairs on gun-sights. (Not surprisingly, Palin quickly removed the page, and scrubbed the inflammatory photos.)  The language employed during the campaign by Representative Gifford’s Tea Party opponent was filled with gun imagery and dark allusions to “Second Amendment remedies.” And who among us did not see the earlier coverage of unhinged people brandishing guns and screaming obscenities at Town Hall meetings about health care reform?

For those who refuse to believe that language has consequences, think about the gay youngsters whose suicides have followed repeated taunts of “faggot,” and other homophobic slurs. Think about the generations of GLBT folks who stayed far back in the closet as a result of the constant, offhand dismissal of gays and lesbians as somehow less than human, less than “normal.”

I am not suggesting that intemperate language “created” this tragedy. There are plenty of other cultural culprits, beginning with the zealots who believe that any restriction of the right to carry a gun, no matter how reasonable, is part of a communist plot. Indeed, last year Jan Brewer, the intellectually-challenged Governor of Arizona, signed into law a bill that lifted all restrictions on the right of Arizona residents to carry concealed weapons. One of the restrictions eliminated by that measure was a requirement of a background check that might have kept a mentally troubled individual from carrying a handgun.

But while violent imagery and intemperate language don’t cause such acts, they absolutely do contribute to the creation of an environment within which the unthinkable becomes just another possibility, where violence becomes a viable option to be explored, and where grievance—real or imaginary—justifies barbarism.

When this sort of rhetoric is employed in the service of bigotry, and a seething, resentful anti-intellectualism, as it currently is, we should not be surprised when violence erupts.

It creates, as they say, a perfect storm.