10 January 2011

So Much For A Less Violent American Politics?

I recently made a couple of posts on the relative non-violence of American politics and labor relations compared to the European (and to some extent world) alternative.

Then, there was the attempted assassination of a Democratic Congresswoman in Arizona this weekend that resulted in the death of the chief judge of Arizona's federal trial court and five others, in addition to a dozen plus other gunshot wounds. The event was cited by many as a symptom of the violent political rhetoric by the Tea Party movement (including Sarah Palin, in particular) in the 2010 election. We a little of that climate in Colorado, but it was probably more intense in Arizona. The Congresswoman who was shot suffered a bullet shot through the brain and miraculously lives at the moment, but there is no telling if she will be able to continue to carry out the duties of her office, and certainly, her life will never be the same again.

I wasn't specifically contradicted by this event; I've never argued that there is never political violence in the United States, just that it is comparatively rare. But, was I fundamentally wrong? Is this a case of American politics turning a corner in the wrong direction after a low point that my post captured? Or, is this simply one more mass murder by a mentally ill person whose political character is really no more relevant than any other of these periodic mass murder outbursts?

We really won't know until time tells us if this was a freak event or the start of a trend. The arrest of a man for threatening U.S. Senator Michael Bennet isn't encouraging, of course, and this incident does remind us the outgoing Governor Ritter survived an assassination attempt by a mentally ill young man during his four year term of office. It also casts a different light on the act of animal rights terrorism involved in the burning down of the Sheepskin factory in Glendale, Colorado, a stone's throw from my office.

The fact that the killer was off his rocker (although quite possibly still legally culpable for his crime) doesn't necessarily mean that the political climate wasn't a factor. Extreme acts are committed by extreme people. Even in street gangs, the people who actually kill other people in gang crimes are not typical of the average street gang member from a mental health perspective. But, the fact that this most recent shooting does not appear to have involved an organized conspiracy, at least, is encouraging. Others may not have been attuned enough to the risk to take some sort of action before he struck, but they might be now and certainly the people who might have had a clue that the killer was dangerous but failed to stop him, had no desire to further his murderous plans.

(As an aside, while there is little doubt that the attempted murder of a Congresswoman took place here, the federal death penalty for murder of a federal official required an actual death, and it isn't clear whether or not one can be guilty of that crime if one did not know that one of the bystanders killed was a federal judge, or if the doctrine of transferred intent (i.e. that an intent to kill one federal official suffices to show intent even if a different federal official ends up being the one who dies) applies to that offense. Arizona's death penalty surely applies to this case at any rate.)

The man who committed the crime was caught and he will probably never be in a position to threaten anyone else ever again. The politicians and spinmeisters have been chastened, for a little while at least, about the perils of engaging in violent rhetoric, politically even if there is no causal link to this event. There is little one can do to prevent a single deranged individual from sometime, somewhere doing something horrible. But, if the causes are larger, there is something that can be done.

Gun control will be debated, and it just might just happen that some tangentially related legislation to limit the access of mentally ill people with criminal records (as the perpetrator apparently had) might advance just a little, or it might not. The bill most on point will probably be rechristened with the name of Gabrielle Giffords, who was the target of the attack (a la the Brady Bill).

In isolation, events like these are tragedies, but don't change the larger course of our lives. But, when they impact the rarified world of our modest community of high elected officials and judges, the potential for an event like this to change who choses to participate in politics and how they choose to do so is real. The fear that a comment will draw a violent attack from a crazy person can change how politicians act, mostly for the worse. This is particularly true when the deadly violent crazies who are our domestic terrorists seem to have a conservative partisan bias.

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