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The Inescapable Sadness of Political Violence in America

Steven Cohen – Executive Director, The Earth Institute, Columbia University

Posted: January 10, 2011 08:37 AM

We in America are fortunate to live in a place where political violence is relatively rare, but the shocking shooting of Arizona Representative Gabrielle Giffords and the death of Federal Judge John Roll, a 9-year-old student council leader Christina-Taylor Green, and four other victims, reminds us of the thin line between a peaceful and a violent civil society. In the wake of this horror, I hope we will see some cooling down of the political rhetoric that may have contributed to this act of lunacy. Apparently, Sarah Palin has removed the part of her web page that showed the districts of representatives she wanted removed from Congress beneath the “cross hairs” of a rifle’s scope. Elected leaders of both parties spent much of the weekend dialing back the rhetoric and doing a bit of what we can all hope was soul searching.

For those of us who came of age during the 1960’s, political assassinations and violence are the source of recurring nightmares that I suppose will never completely fade. I will never forget the evening of the California Presidential primary in 1968. I stayed awake as late as I could that night, and remember my father coming into my room in the middle of the night to tell me it looked as if my political hero Bobby Kennedy had won the primary. The next morning we awoke to the news that Bobby had been shot, and even though I was only fourteen-years-old, having already lost Marin Luther King earlier that spring, I never saw politics in quite the same way again. I would never again find myself sitting at a card table on Kings Highway in Brooklyn with students from Brooklyn College selling campaign buttons. Electoral politics seemed somehow irrelevant to me, but not to Representative Giffords who brought Congress to her constituents’ corner. Or to Barack Obama whose 2008 campaign stands out as a small beacon amidst the electoral darkness. Still, the sick and personal attacks on him and the attack on Representative Gifford are graphic reminders of the potential for insanity and violence that seems to lie just beneath the surface of what passes for political dialogue in this country.

I don’t know that it makes sense to blame the act of a deranged person on our political environment. But it is not hard to connect the emotionally charged political climate in Arizona and the easy availability of guns to the horror in Tucson. It may not be as simple as cause and effect, but it is easy to imagine that it could be. If there is a lesson here, I hope it is that we need to restore some degree of civility to our political dialogue. The effort to delegitimize political opponents as subversive enemies or immoral morons makes it impossible to have a reasoned discussion.

The growing role of money in politics and the ability of wealthy and powerful interest groups to dominate political communication is a central part of the problem. The very definition of reality seems to be up for sale these days. It is difficult to have a real conversation about competing policy goals, when we can’t agree on the facts of the problem we are trying to solve. The health care debate was a case in point. How can we make policy when we are overwhelmed by propaganda from groups with huge financial stakes in the shape of that policy? Doctors, drug companies, insurance companies, unions, the Chamber of Commerce, and the media (that live off of the advertising from these wealthy interests) worked overtime to ensure that none of us could tell fact from fiction.

America’s wealth and well-being depend on political stability. In seeming contrast, the profits of media outlets seem to be partially dependent on a certain amount of conflict, violence and noise. The horror in Arizona on January 8 undoubtedly increased the number of people watching cable news. Politicians have come to learn that extreme language generates attention and coverage. Sharron Angle, Harry Reid’s failed opponent in the Nevada Senate race spoke of “second amendment remedies” to political debates. How do we reconcile our civilization’s interest in civility and stability with the media and mass public’s hunger for conflict and drama? Like rubberneckers at a car wreck, our attention is drawn to the mess, even as we realize that violence feeds on itself.

We are all desperate for an explanation of this horrific act of violence and for a rational analysis of an irrational act. It will, of course, never come, and we are left with a feeling of deep and inescapable sadness. Like that feeling I remember from June 1968 watching that endless loop of Bobby Kennedy smiling and saying, “And now it’s on to Chicago, and let’s win there!” An image immediately followed by a picture of him wounded on the kitchen floor. Hopefully, Congresswoman Giffords, will survive and recover from this violence. Unfortunately six human beings have already died. My hope is that we have learned something since the 1960’s and we can rise above this political violence. When the Federal Building in Oklahoma City was bombed in 1995, Bill Clinton recognized his role as Head of State and provided all of us with a great moment of national healing and reconciliation. Sadly, it is now President Obama’s turn to do the same.

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