Monday, January 10, 2011

Sticks And Stones

Prior to the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7th, 1941, a man would stand before microphones and movie cameras around the country, urging the isolation of America from war-torn Europe. The man was earnest and forthright, convinced that the Nazi cause was reasonable, in wanting to work toward a more genetically pure race, and he stood before large gatherings, haranguing political leaders of the day for their interest in interceding on behalf of Great Britain, before it, too, was overrun by the German war machine. He was a passionate believer in eugenics and admirer of the Nazi regime, for its technical brilliance and innovation. He saw them as the future, and he saw no need for America to interfere in European affairs.

His name was Charles Lindbergh.

For his trouble, the U.S. Army Air Corps discharged his reserve commission as a Lieutenant Colonel, and his name was decried by a many a person, right up to and including Franklin Delano Roosevelt. He became a pariah, shunned for his defense of the policies of a tyrant and his destruction of European Peace in the name of living space, resources, and racial purity. When war finally did come to the United States, “Lucky Lindy” tried to re-enlist in the Air Corps, to be soundly rejected. He eventually wangled his way into the Pacific Theater by becoming a consultant to a major aviation contractor, and going out into the field to check on the effect of combat on equipment and pilots. Eventually, he would fly combat missions, ostensibly to show pilots how to conserve fuel for the long trips from their bases to distant island targets. The damage was done, however; he would still be revered for his accomplishments, but his luster dimmed considerably from then on.

There is nothing wrong with being passionate in the defense of your ideals, save where that passion goes to defend the indefensible or to paint those who oppose you as less than people for their resistance. It is enough to simply disagree and accept such disagreement as the price of holding your beliefs; often, no amount of debate will cause another to budge from their stance, and it is undesirable and untenable to simply bulldoze them under. Our Constitution declares that everyone shall have the right to speak their peace and believe what they will, unmolested. But where does such molestation end? What constitutes a balanced and thoughtful debate as opposed to rude and petulant gainsaying? At what point is the line crossed, where simple disagreement turns to vilification and a call to strike down opposition?

A decent society must accept that where there is freedom of thought and expression, there will be those who will make intemperate and ill-conceived remarks, and that such remarks will fall on the ears of the thoughtful and thoughtless alike. Words, in and of themselves, mean little, until context is applied and meaning is supplied. The formation of thoughts and ideas into words, to be spread amongst the masses is nothing new; time has shown that the greatest statesmen and orators and writers have been able to excite the masses with their words, and that the whole idea behind the crafting of a message is to convey a sense of action and motion. We have all been bored by long-winded and winding speeches  that do not inspire anything but the desire to sleep. We have also heard words so stirring, that they have plucked at our heart-strings or been deposited in the very core of our minds, to be recalled by us every day.

Inspiration is always desirable, where words can drive us to strive for greater things and make changes for the greater good, reminding of us of our human duty to ourselves and others. Words, however, can take on dark connotations just as easily, and plant the seeds of dissension and ill-will that lie dormant in the darker parts of human psyche, to bloom at unexpected times and in unexpected ways. Though some can resist the allure of the fiendish idea, some have so little willpower, that given encouragement through invective and vitriol, their fires stoked with harsh rhetoric and calls for action, they would take it upon themselves to begin the revolution. The line between traitor and patriot is a thin one, and is easily traversed in the mind, where society might disagree with the sentiment. One does not raise a weapon against another unless they are willing to use it and are certain of their intent; such is the case for words as much as for knives, swords, and guns.

What do we make, then, of an attack which makes no sense to us in isolation? Taken for itself, it is simply the work of a madman, bent on killing at least one and perhaps many more people, stopped only by the actions of a few willing to risk their already exposed lives in an effort to quell the killing. The attack on Representative Gabrielle Giffords outside a supermarket in her district, there as part of an outreach to her constituents, is reprehensible for sure, more so for how heinous her injury was, and how among the six dead is a Court Justice and a 9-year-old girl born on the fateful day of September 11th, 2001. True, many more could have died, and those who did die were not any better or worse than any others who might have died in similar circumstances, but what are to do if not be outraged that any blood was spilled, and that such people were the victims of such a wanton act of violence?

The fault lies, ultimately, with the man who pulled the trigger, for it is he that intended murder, he who bought the gun, he who planned the killing, and he who created the motivations in his own mind that led him down the path to the destruction of his life and so many others. It does not stop there, however. The act, though appearing in isolation, was part of a larger skein, a tapestry of forces woven together to form the dark and sullen fabric of violent opposition. One can look to the shop that sold a mentally unstable person a gun, for shirking responsibility. One can look to poor mental health services, which might have forestalled the event. One can look to a family that perhaps let a young man linger too long in a world of madness.

One can also look to larger society, to the sum total of those forces loosed upon the airwaves, the Internet, in the news, or on the big screen. One can especially pinpoint rhetoric in the state of Arizona, whereby Rep. Giffords was painted as an object of scorn and derision, a “target” if you will of the local opposition, and from further afield, by national political forces determined to impose their will on a nation by “targeting” Rep. Giffords office in the mid-Term elections. When the mind is soaked in waves of images of targets, cross-hairs, and bombarded with words tinged in the connotations of violence, how is it so easy to say they would have zero effect on a susceptible mind? It is hubris to believe that such events occur in austere vacuum, that repeated exposure to negativity, strained rhetoric, and exhortations toward violence couched in political terms will have little or no effect on the receptive psyche; immersion in an environment bathed in such wanton disregard for humanity cannot help but suck in the willing and mold them in ways even they could not conceive of. Throughout history, that is the effect that has been coveted by saints and sinners alike: that their words would find root in vulnerable minds, to grow and bear fruit, and bring them followers willing to accept their word tacitly and without rancor.

If that were not the case, why the electoral attack ads, painting opponents as liars, thieves, cheats, and scoundrels? One does not fill the political discourse with angry images and mean-spirited tactics simply for the pure joy of it; the intent is clearly to latch on to those who will believe what is said, and act upon it, whether that is at the ballot box, the campaign headquarters, or in some other darker and more complex fashion. And even if the intent is not directly to harm, the words are flung with such careless ease that no attention is paid to where they land, and no attempt is made to mitigate them, even when the election is long over. In the era of the Internet, nothing truly dies anymore, as political ads, blogs, and sites outlast the campaigns they represent, continuing to work their magic, heedless of the potential cost.

It is easy for those who have made it their business to inflame public passions on political topics to stand aside, throw up their hands, and absolve themselves of responsibility. If there is one pox on modern society, it is the seeming lack of culpability that many wear as a shield against a long, hard stare at their behavior. Such as it is, they cannot be made to take their fair share of the burden; it does not matter, though, for while they may feel inclined to wag their fingers at others and conveniently forget their own role in the proceedings, we can hold them to account. And if we are smart, we shall.

And let me say this: I, too, must claim my fair share of the blame, as a member of American society. For things to have reached this point, means I have not worked hard enough to alter the political landscape. Had I, and many like me, put up more of a fight during the last elections, if we had stayed true to the vision we used to elect our President in 2008, this might not have happened. If we had struck down the raging ignorance and bigotry that arose during the previous two years, we might have altered the course of events sufficiently. We will never know; time moves ever forward, never allowing us a true sense of what might have been. To that end, to prevent such from happening again, I and others like me shall redouble our efforts, to put down this tyrannical insurrection, and cast back those who would make their stock-and-trade in political warfare. Those devoted to altering America into a vision of the past and not the future, must be swept from the stage, never to trouble us again.

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