Political Climate Change and Extreme Political Events

Originally published at The Benfell Blog. You can comment here or there.

At this writing, it is too early to say whether the shooting of Representative Gabrielle Giffords, an Arizona Democrat, in Tuscon was politically-motivated. Marty Kaplan perhaps put it best,

I’m not saying that putting a bullseye on Arizona Democrat Rep. Gabrielle Giffords’ congressional race – as Sarah Palin did – was an explicit or intentional invitation to violence. Nor am I saying that the “Get on Target for Victory” events held by the guy Giffords beat – “Help remove Gabrielle Giffords from office Shoot a fully automatic M16 with Jesse Kelly” – was the reason her assassin went after her.1

But a lot of people think it was politically-motivated. The New York Times story notes that she was “an outspoken critic of Arizona’s tough immigration law,” that “after the final approval of the Democrats’ health care law, which Ms. Giffords supported, the windows of her office in Tucson were broken or shot out in an act of vandalism”2 (which a Mother Jones story suggests may have been at the instigation of Mike Vanderboegh, a former 1990s militia leader from Alabama3), that “a protester who showed up to meet Ms. Giffords at a supermarket event similar to Saturday’s was removed by the police when the pistol he had holstered under his armpit fell and bounced on the floor,” and that Giffords’ district was among those on Sarah Palin’s “crosshairs map”4 (which has now been hastily removed5). Paul Krugman, better known for his economic prognostications than his criminal investigation prognostications, wrote:

We don’t have proof yet that this was political, but the odds are that it was. She’s been the target of violence before. And for those wondering why a Blue Dog Democrat, the kind Republicans might be able to work with, might be a target, the answer is that she’s a Democrat who survived what was otherwise a GOP sweep in Arizona, precisely because the Republicans nominated a Tea Party activist. (Her father says that “the whole Tea Party” was her enemy.) And yes, she was on Sarah Palin’s infamous “crosshairs” list.

What I’m going to say is it doesn’t matter whether this shooting was political. Any more than it matters whether any particular storm, drought, flood, or whatever is the result of climate change. Because just as meteorological climate change increases the incidence of extreme weather events, political climate change is likely to increase the incidence of extreme political events.

One of my professors, arguing for a notion of social creativity, points to a “lone hero” archetype (which he debunks). He sees it in the context of a strong individualist bias in our society that devalues group efforts including anything collaborative or cooperative.6 This is a very destructive thing for society, particularly when some deranged someone gets it into his or her head to be a “hero,” to individually take on and destroy a figurehead of the federal government—as might be what happened in the Giffords shooting.

Kaplan criticizes how the “macho athletic lexicon” has “has helped dumb down democracy, making a serious national discussion about anything important too wonky for words.” He writes,

The “second amendment solution,” though, does something worse than make politics a branch of entertainment. It makes it a blood sport. I know politics ain’t beanbag. But words have consequences, rhetoric shapes reality, and much as we like to believe that we are creatures of reason, there is something about our species’ limbic system and lizard brainstems that makes us susceptible to irrational fantasies.7

We’ve been traveling down this road for a while now. What we should all be concerned about is a question of whether the Giffords shooting is a single event or part of an increasingly violent trend that seems to have intensified with Barack Obama’s election to the presidency. And “goinsouth” at the Daily Kos has a long list of right wing attacks over the last 100 years.8 These are very dangerous, unhinged people.

And those who insist that this country should remain united, that we should attempt through political means to impose our will upon them, should be counting the cost in blood.

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