Occasionally, events conspire to remind me that national identity is what we make of it. The meaning and content of our iconic symbols and guiding principles—concepts like “the rule of law,” “liberty,” “limited government,” and “equality”—change constantly to meet the perceived demands of the day. We shape them to suit our purposes, and reshape them as the need arises.
Most times, the process is so gradual that it escapes notice altogether, like the man who imagines himself walking a straight line, completely unaware that a bias in his gait or slope in the ground pulls him steadily off course. Oblivious, he plods on unaware, until finally he looks up and discovers he is miles from where he wanted to be.
Violence and Politics
In early January 2011, a crowd stood in the parking lot of a grocery store outside Tucson as Democratic Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords led a constituent meeting called, “Congress on Your Corner.” As the event unfolded, a young man named Jared Loughner sidled next to Giffords, pulled out a handgun, and shot her in the head. He then turned the gun on the crowd, killing six, including a federal judge and a nine-year-old girl, and wounding more than a dozen others.
As so often happens in this country, shock quickly gave way to indifference, and after the obligatory handwringing about a culture of violence, the Giffords shooting fell from the front pages. Loughner pled guilty and will spend the rest of his life in prison. Against all odds, Giffords survived and recently founded an organization dedicated to gun control. Life goes on.
Except when it doesn’t. Since Tucson, the United States has suffered through (and promptly forgotten) four mass shootings that were even more deadly, including attacks at Sandy Hook Elementary School; Aurora, Colorado; the Washington Navy Yard in D.C.; and a hair salon in Seal Beach, California. Massacres may not be a way of life in this country, but it seems foolish to call them anomalies.
Yet the recent murder of New York Police Officers Liu and Ramos should bring us back to Tucson. Then as now, the Giffords shooting took place in a hyper-charged atmosphere of political partisanship, and many wondered whether a pervasive environment of violent rhetoric—on this occasion by the Right—could have motivated Loughner’s rampage.
Particular attention focused on former Republican Vice Presidential candidate and right-wing media favorite Sarah Palin, who had released a fund-raising appeal in March 2010 using rifle cross hairs to mark the districts where she hoped a Republican would unseat a Democrat, including the district of Representative Giffords, and had encouraged her supporters with remarks like, “Don’t retreat. Reload!”
Palin may have attracted the most attention, but she was hardly the most irresponsible. For weeks, conservative commentators had filled the public square with even more inflammatory imagery and language, which led Tucson Sheriff Clarence Dupnik after the shooting to condemn “the vitriolic rhetoric that we hear day in and day out from people in the radio business and some people in the TV business.” Yet Palin, because of her visibility, undoubtedly incurred the strongest condemnation. A headline in the New York Daily News charged that “the blood of Congresswoman Giffords” was on her hands.
Conservatives denounced these attacks. Whatever happened to individual responsibility, they asked? Criminals are responsible for their own behavior, and only a liberal would shift blame for this tragedy away from the obviously mentally ill Loughner, where it belonged. In a statement released on her Facebook page entitled, “America’s Enduring Strength,” Palin disavowed any responsibility for Loughner’s behavior, dismissing him as “a single evil man,” and “a deranged gunman.”
Individual Responsibility and Community Welfare
I thought of all this—and the meaning of “individual responsibility”—after the police shootings in New York. Once again, some have wondered whether the shooter, Ismaaiyl Brinsley, could have been motivated by the violent rhetoric that appeared after the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson and Eric Garner in Staten Island. Some of this language was inexcusably inflammatory. Now, however, the finger-pointing came from the Right. Conservatives have blamed protesters and politicians on the Left for creating an environment that excused and encouraged violence against law enforcement.
Rudy Giuliani, for instance, has accused President Obama of “propaganda” that summoned Americans to “hate the police.” Republican Congressman Peter King called on the president and New York Mayor Bill de Blasio to “stop the cop bashing and anti-police rhetoric,” and former New York Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik, proving that hyperbole is unimaginatively catholic, said de Blasio and Al Sharpton “have blood on their hands” for “encouraging” Brinsley’s attack.
And once again, the Left has done its best to distance itself from Brinsley’s slaughter. They have been at pains to observe that Brinsley, like Loughner, was obviously unstable, as though pointing this out were sufficient to excuse prior calls for violence. And whatever happened, they wonder, to individual responsibility, that great symbol of American identity? What indeed.
And so it came to pass. Two ideologically opposed communities share a determination to demonize their respective enemies. Worse, they mutually sustain this behavior with an irrational belief that their demonization won’t hurt anybody, and refuse to accept responsibility when it does, all in the name of individual responsibility. This is a curious state of affairs that has not received enough attention.
The demonization is easy to understand, though impossible to defend. If history holds any lesson, it is that demonization is irresistible. In this country, it appeals to the moralizing impulse to dismiss social problems as personal failings, and to the kindred conviction that all would be right with the world but for some constantly changing but ever-present outsider. Blaming the cops, or the Democrats, or the Blacks, or the Jews, or the Muslims, is simply too easy to pass up.
But what of the refusal to accept responsibility? Why do people refuse to accept that violence is a predictable if unintended consequence of mass demonization? In some unknown but absolutely predictable number of cases, calls for violence will lead people to be violent. Why do those who indulge in this vitriol shy from this self-evident truth?
Of course, there is the obvious reason. No one wants to be accused of having “blood on their hands.” But there is a much deeper explanation. To associate a group with the madness of a Jared Loughner or an Ismaaiyl Brinsley—to suggest that the many can be remotely responsible for the few—is to attack one of the pillars of post-war American identity: radical individualism.
Radical Individualism in Political Culture
Individualism has a long and celebrated history in cultural memory. It is undoubtedly one of the shared symbols of national identity. But the individualism that took hold in the second half of the 20th century is different in kind from the individualism of an earlier era. Before, the atomizing effects of naked individualism were deliberately mitigated by a countervailing belief that all were embedded in, and shared a responsibility to, the welfare of a larger community.
But the radical individualism of the late 20th century severed the reciprocal social bond that once joined the group to the individual. This particular variant of individualism, which took hold in opposition to the redistributive impulses of the Great Society and the Civil Rights movement, purposely relieves the many of responsibility for the suffering or violence of the few.
And though the present version of individualism began with modern conservatism, it is important to understand that it is now entirely bipartisan. The attachment to the radical individualism of contemporary American life is all but universal, which explains why the Right and Left had the identical reaction to the violence that their equivalent but opposing rhetoric produced.
Once, society tried to spare itself the disintegrating effect of radical individualism; today we embrace it. And when radical individualism combines with bitter demonization, lethal violence is all but inevitable. It took six lives in Tucson and two more in New York. It’s the American way.