Immediate Thoughts on the Shooting of Gabrielle Giffords

US Representative Gabrielle Giffords was shot today during a public event outside of a grocery store in Tucson.  As many as nine other people were also critically wounded.  At the time of this writing it is reported that she is still alive and in surgery.  The gunman is alive and in police custody.  No further information on him has yet been released.

It is also coming to light that Giffords was the target of violent rhetoric by Tea Party groups.  Sarah Palin, until taking it down today, had a map online with a gunsight over Gifford’s district and those of several other democratic candidates for the Tea Party to target for defeat.  (The map has been removed from Palin’s site since the shooting.)  Giffords’s political opponent in the last election, Jesse Kelly,  held a “Target for Victory” rally during the campaign that involved shooting fully automatic M16s with the candidate.  And Gifford’s has been the target of violence and death threats before.

As all of the examples of violent rhetoric began streaming across Twitter, I responded by tweeting, “Chastising Palin et al. for inflammatory rhetoric: appropriate. Assuming things about motive behind actual shooting: too early.”  I’d like to expand on that here.

First: the rhetoric is execrable.  It is execrable independent of any specific details of this attempted assassination.  What makes it so unconscionable is that it lowers the activation energy required for people to become radicalized to violent or terroristic acts.  In her thorough and marvelous book What Terrorists Want, terrorism researcher Louise Richardson writes:

It is simply baffling that someone with a background no different from many others’ and a great deal more privileged than most would choose to become a terrorist.  In attempting to understand the causes of terrorism, one must look for explanations at the level of the individual, such as Omar Sheikh, but that is not enough.  Explanations are found at national and transnational levels too.  The emergence of terrorism requires a lethal cocktail with three ingredients: a disaffected individual, an enabling group, and a legitimizing ideology.

Even without explicitly advocating violent activity, by using the rhetoric of violence against their political opponents the Tea Party positions itself to be the enabling group, and perhaps provide the legitimizing ideology, for people sufficiently deranged to radicalize in our highly privileged society.  It is not necessary to openly call for violence to facilitate it, and the Tea Party does.  It needs to stop.

The second part, though, is about our responses to shocking and horrible events.  In this case, directly blaming the Tea Party for the shooting is not yet called for.  All the criticisms I just leveled against them were equally true yesterday.  Meanwhile, the shooter is in custody and we can expect the details of his motivations to come out; making assumptions doesn’t further intelligent discourse, and blaming Sarah Palin for Gifford’s death (I’ve seen multiple messages to this end) is overly reductive — and that’s ignoring the fact that she (thankfully, luckily) isn’t dead.  There will be all the time in the world for anger, for grieving, for recriminations.  But in the absence of detail, let our initial responses be shock and pity and remorse that such things happen, and not to seek in a knowledge vacuum for our own target for blame.

More on this topic as details emerge.

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  1. Thank you for the very thoughtful post. The thing, I think, about our responses, including my own, is that being overly reductive is emotionally easier. We search for reasons, even of they are not true, because they give us a story to tell, and that helps us feel like we are making sense of things (even if that is demonstrably not true – I am thinking here of Dave Cullen’s amazing book, Columbine.) It is almost impossible to bear, in the face of something so horrible, that perhaps there was no reason.

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