American tragedy, political response

A murderous assault on a public meeting in Arizona has further exposed the United States’s deep political divisions. President Obama’s reaction, for all the praise it received, failed to meet the moment, says Godfrey Hodgson. Now, with the state-of-the-union address, he has another chance.
Godfrey Hodgson
25 January 2011

There has been much speculation in the American media that President Obama’s speech in Tucson on 12 January 2011 at the memorial event for the six people murdered at Gabrielle (Gabby) Giffords’s “Congress on Your Corner” meeting would be a “game-changer” - that it would revive his presidency as Bill Clinton’s speech after the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 is said to have done.

I don’t believe it. On the contrary, the whole tragic and miserable episode seems to me to have deepened and reinforced the ideological polarisation of American politics. And Obama’s speech, fine and effective in itself, is yet further evidence that he either doesn’t understand or simply can’t bring himself to acknowledge the depth and bitterness of the abyss between red and blue America.

Almost fifty years ago, I was in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, to celebrate a minor victory in the civil-rights movement. The news reached us that Medgar Evers, the respected black leader in Mississippi, had been shot by a member of the White Citizen Councils. A white Mississippian clergyman, Will D Campbell, himself a brave and committed civil-rights worker, offered to give me a lift to Mississippi.

As we drove across the Alabama “black belt”, I guessed that this atrocity might make even conservative white Mississippians soften their attitudes. “Don’t you believe it”, said Campbell, “My mother kneels down by her bed every night and prays that God will save me from being a nigger-lover!”

Only hours after the shooting in Tucson, Clarence Dubkin, the sheriff of Pima county (in which Tucson lies) was one of those who interpreted the shooting as a politically motivated act: “I’d just like to say that when you look at unbalanced people, how they respond to the vitriol that comes out of certain people’s mouths about tearing down the government, the anger, the hatred, the bigotry that goes on in this country is getting to be outrageous.”

Many other Americans interpreted the attempt on Representative Giffords’s life in similar terms, as more or less directly the consequence of the almost hysterical, ideologically polarising rightwing rhetoric which is such a feature of American politics today, and especially of Fox News and blowhard “shock-jocks”. They highlighted the “crosshairs” with which Sarah Palin’s staff had marked Giffords and other Democratic congressmen who had voted for health reform, which many on the American right see as un-American and even “socialist” or “communist”.

The lurch of language

There is nothing new about this sort of response. When Lee Harvey Oswald shot President Kennedy in 1963, it took only hours for many breast-pounding worthies to see in his act evidence of the nation’s sins. The murders of Martin Luther King and Robert F Kennedy in 1968 brought forth similar outpourings (few, even today, seem to have noticed that Robert Kennedy’s assassin, Sirhan Sirhan, was a Palestinian, and that the wrongs of Palestine rather than the sins of America motivated his crime).

Such regular outbursts have long been in the American grain. They are reminiscent of the jeremiads of 17th-century Massachusetts divines such as Increase Mather, who habitually attributed earthquakes, droughts and Indian raids to the boozing, adultery and poor church attendance of their flock.

If the left’s reaction to the massacre in Tucson was all too predictable, so too was that of the right. Sarah Palin wasted no time in attacking liberals for blaming her side. “I listened at first puzzled, then with concern, and now with sadness”, she said, “to the irresponsible statements from people attempting to apportion blame for this terrible event”. Acts of monstrous criminality, she went on, “begin and end with the criminals who commit them, not collectively with all the citizens of a state, not with those who listen to talk radio.”

Fair enough, but unfortunately for her, Palin also characterised liberal attempts to blame rightwing pundits for the violence of political discourse as a “blood libel”. This term, as many of her supporters as well as her critics well know, has come to refer very precisely to the horrible anti-semitic belief in medieval Germany that Jews used the blood of murdered Christian children to make matzoh (bread) for religious ceremonies.

Some of her defenders, including some usually hair-trigger sensitive to any hint of anti-semitism, hastened to argue that “blood libel” had passed into general currency as a term for any particularly gross accusation. But the net effect of Palin’s reckless or ignorant use of language seems to have been to have seriously damaged her unacknowledged but widely assumed campaign for the presidency.

That as yet can only be a matter for speculation, as must be the ultimate consequence of the whole Tucson tragedy. The motive of Jared Lee Loughner, who emptied the thirty-round magazine of a Glock 9 mm. semi-automatic pistol into Gabby Giffords’s public meeting on 8 January, remain obscure; in much the same way as do those of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold who killed thirteen people at Columbine high school in Colorado in 1999, and those of Seung-Hui Cho, who killed thirty-two at Virginia Tech in 2007.

Loughner appears to have had a rather trivial grudge against Giffords for not answering a question to his satisfaction, and a habit of reading fervent political tracts of all colours, from Karl Marx to Adolf Hitler by way of Ayn Rand. It is also the case that it is easier for a figure like Loughner to acquire guns in Arizona than for his equivalents in many other developed countries, though there have been random massacres there too (in Britain, Finland and Germany, for example) in recent years.

The classic account of such a killer in literature is Moosbrugger, the slow-witted, apparently amiable carpenter in Robert Musil’s great late-imperial novel The Man without Qualities, who - out of character - murders a prostitute.  Loughner may well turn out to be more of a Moosbrugger than a Raskolnikov, the idealist in Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment who murders a pawnbroker in the hope of saving the world.

The problem of piety

Barack Obama’s speech carefully refrained from prejudging the case. In this, he avoided the self-inflicted damage caused by his hasty remarks about the policeman who arrested his friend, Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr, in 2009. But his address, if evidently more prepared, was revealing of his political limitations.

It was (as ever) elegant and beautifully delivered; to his immediate audience it was obviously deeply moving; and it was widely praised by media commentators. It was also audaciously sentimental and so politically centrist as to evoke a remark directed by the Welsh-British prime minister Lloyd George at an opponent: that he has sat on the fence so long that the iron has entered into his soul.

It is not necessary to be, as Obama is, the father of two young daughters to be appalled by the random, wasteful death of Christina Taylor-Green, the 9-year-old already interested in politics who attended  Giffords’ meeting only to be shot dead. But to say, as the president did, “If there are rain puddles in heaven, Christina is jumping in them today”, is a trope too sickly even for the most maudlin of Victorian moralists to contemplate.

Obama was once asked during a visit to Europe whether he was an “American exceptionalist”. His lengthy answer cleverly began: "I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism". 

There is a distinction, though. Many modern Britons and modern Greeks no doubt love their country and believe that it is exceptional in specific ways. Obama’s exceptionalism is much closer to what used to be called “chauvinism” (before the use of the word began to refer exclusively to men’s attitudes to women): that is, the belief in the moral superiority of one’s own country.

His speech in Tucson again reflects this. He referred in glowing terms to the American dream, and said “I believe that for all our imperfections, we are full of decency and goodness, and that the forces that divide us are not as strong as those that unite us.”

That too is exceptionalist, in the chauvinist sense. But it also hints that the chief executive either has not noticed or cannot accept what to many observers within and outside America is the most striking fact about the country’s politics today: deep, bitter, unforgiving and corrosive division, a mood where politicians denounce one another, in both directions, as if their opponents had forfeited all common humanity.

True, a memorial service is a time for calm and philosophical reflection rather than political rhetoric. But if Barack Obama is to save his presidency, he will have to find a way to address the origins and the consequences of America’s political predicament more robustly than with his now familiar pieties; and he must do it soon. The state-of-the-union address on 25 January gives him no better opportunity.

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