Sunday, January 9, 2011

Crazy or A Gun Crazed Society?

Today's entry is a brief interlude in my series of blog entries about our Japan trip.  Yesterday Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and 19 others were shot at a political event outside a Safeway in Tucson AZ.  I learned about the shooting from news alerts to my Blackberry while I was shopping for toilets in the morning.  I followed the story throughout the morning on my Blackberry while I continued to do my errands.

When I arrived home, I became obsessed with the story as did several of my Facebook friends.  In particular I looked at the alleged shooter's YouTube page and read any articles I could find, including one Naomi Klein found and called the best summary at that time about the motivations of the suspected killer. and information from Daily Kos I became obsessed with trying to figure out the motivation for the shooting.  Was it political?  Was the suspect schizophrenic (the conclusion I reached after watching his videos and reading what was on his Myspace page)?  Was he a pawn in a larger terrorist movement? (We now know that the second "person of interest" the police were seeking has been cleared so it is looking now like the 22 year old suspect acted alone.)

What fascinates me now is, notwithstanding all the political rhetoric about vitriolic speech as the cause or even domestic terrorism, how quickly we conclude that the alleged shooter was crazy.  In the shootings at Fort Hood in November 2009, the alleged shooter there  was initially described as mentally unstable with no political agenda. Then we found out that he was a follower of Anwar al-Awlaki. Mentally ill or terrorist?  I would wager most people still remember the descriptions of him as crazy, because that spin dominated the news at the time.

When I was in college, I remember studying the  My Lai massacre in a political science class.  In one test question we were asked to explain the actions of My Lai, particularly Lieutenant William Calley who was convicted of murder.  I recall viewing the situation through a psychological lens, explaining that Calley was indeed "crazy", a sociopath or worse.  My professor was clearly looking for a more sociological explanation including the pressures on young men in a war environment and the extrinsic pressures to inflate the numbers of dead to justify the war.  Calley himself said he was just following orders but  did repeatedly claim to have remorse for what he and the others did.

We live in a society that glorifies violence and provides a constitutional right to carry a gun.  Is it any surprise that "true patriotic Americans" like Sarah Palin revert to metaphors of violence when going after political opponents.  Putting Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and others in the crosshairs of a gun (yes, a gun.  There is no way they intended those crosshairs to be "surveyors' symbols") reflects the violence of our society.  Calls for more temperance in such language in political debate  is a noble goal but perhaps a futile one until more people become aware  of  and want to change how much we revere the gun culture.    We need to think about this issue while looking for reasons for such senseless tragedies.

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