[Originally posted at Talking Philosophy Magazine blog]
Suppose that you’re the American media, and you’re trying to make sense of the recent mass murder and attempted assassination in Arizona. There are many simple ways that you can try to come to terms with the event. And since you’re the American media, you are going to treat the process of explanation as if it were as easy as doing a multiple choice test. So the murders happened because a) Jared Loughner is crazy; or they happened because b) America’s crazy; or, c) We don’t know one way or another. Using the pencil provided, pick one (1) option that best fits your answer.
You can predict which answers people will give by asking them their party affiliation and political ideology. Partisan Democrats will point to SarahPAC‘s crosshairs. Ideological democrats will tend to be skeptical that we can tell a simple causal story that will explain these seemingly unexplainable acts. And Republicans will say: he was mentally incompetent, and had nothing to do with the right-wing regime.
Me? — I’d have a hard time filling out my Scantron sheet. Based on the evidence, it’s reasonable to think that Loughner is not mentally competent. But I don’t know if the alleged assassin is mentally competent — that’s one of the things that we’re going to have to find out. And I don’t know if the climate of hostility is responsible for the actions of someone who is not mentally competent, because I don’t know how you go about holding a culture responsible for anything. But that doesn’t mean that the culture of violence and vigilante justice didn’t help cause it.
That’s option d): all of the above.
While we may not know much about the details of the case, we certainly do know that post-9/11 politics is unhinged from reality. The right-wing noise machine is the vanguard of the American Tea Party movement. We also know that the vanguard of the Tea Party self-consciously attempts to goad people into violence against civilians. And we know that Loughner was influenced by the right-wing group American Renaissance. So if the right-wing vanguard has created a society that acts as an incubator for violent resentment, and if this culture gave an outlet for a disturbed mind, then it would be a plausible explanation for why Loughner’s actions took the form that they did.
I can hear some of you gentle readers bristling at one of these premises. You might think that it is very bold for someone to say, “so-and-so self-consciously attempts to goad people into violence”. Like Jon Stewart, you might shudder at any suggestion that there is a causal connection between the culture of vigilantism and Loughner’s attack.
But you have no right to bristle. There’s no reasonable doubt that their explicit intent is to legitimize violence against civilians. Consider these opinions about the fate of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange:
“Julian Assange should be targeted like the Taliban.” — Sarah Palin
“This fellow Anwar al-Awlaki – a joint U.S. citizen hiding out in Yemen – is on a ‘kill list’ [for inciting terrorism against the U.S.]. Mr. Assange should be put on the same list.”G Gordon Liddy, former Nixon advisor and ex-felon
And so on. That is their vision of justice. As a corporate whole, they think they’re The Punisher. The vanguard believes in do-it-yourself homicide, not law and order or due process. Vigilantism is a lynchpin of the Tea Party ethos.
Notice: I am not saying that the case of Julian Assange is identical to that of Gabrielle Giffords. Nor do I bring it up in order to suggest that Loughner was directly influenced by the right-wing vanguard — presumably, he has never met Palin in person, for instance. My point is that you can’t underestimate the causal role of a climate of violence. You might absolve the vanguard of responsibility for crimes committed by irrational actors — but you can hold the vanguard accountable for bringing about the culture.
To see what I’m arguing against, consider Brandon’s recent post (at the philosophy blog Siris). Brandon rightly calls for moderation and temperance by saying:
In cases like this it is important not to over-read the evidence. There is at present no evidence whatsoever linking Loughner to Sarah Palin, and no evidence whatsoever that Loughner was influenced by Palin’s crosshairs list (or, since it had become a popular device in the past three or four years, any of the many bullseye/crosshairs/target lists, Republican or Democrat, that predate Palin’s). There is at present, in fact, no clear association of Loughner with any political group… All these are rather elementary examples, and don’t require much more than basic critical thinking skills and a little research.
(Note: this was written before we found out that Loughner is associated with American Renaissance, so it’s not fair to criticize Brandon for not making that connection.)
The quoted paragraph includes a red herring. For, the way I see it, the “climate of violence” argument doesn’t depend on us knowing anything about Loughner’s “link” to Sarah Palin. A culture is a feature of populations, not just particular interacting persons. You don’t need to know the details about how a society connects specific people with other specific people in order to understand how the culture has had a predictable influence. You just need to establish that the person plays some role in the culture, and that the culture has certain features. By analogy, we will sometimes explain a case of the flu by saying, “there’s a flu going around” — we don’t bother going through the effort of naming the exact person who gave you the virus.
I find it puzzling that Brandon seems to want more evidence before we can offer responsible explanations on the basis of what we have. Our explanations will, of course, be revisable and tentative. And just because we say that the Tea Party helped cause these events, doesn’t mean we’re entitled to lay the blame on particular people. But we can sure blame particular people — the vanguard — for making the culture in the first place.
There is another possible objection. You might say that, even if the climate of violence played some role in Loughner’s crime, it would still not be Palin’s fault for producing that culture of violence. The idea is that there is some analogy between Palin’s role in the Tucson murders and Marilyn Manson’s role in the murders at Columbine.
In the next post, Some time soon, I’m going to show you how this analogy is completely off base.