Thursday, January 13, 2011

Words and Violence

The editorial below is a European take on the overheated political rhetoric that filled the airwaves in this country after last week’s mass shooting in Arizona. It was published in yesterday’s edition of the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten.

Many thanks to our Danish correspondent TB for the tip, and to our Perth correspondent Anne-Kit for the translation:

Words and Violence

In 2004 the American writer Nicholson Baker published his novel “Checkpoint”, in which the main character is plotting to murder the then President, George W. Bush.

A few years later the film “The Death of a President” won the International Critics Prize at the Toronto Film Festival. The film is a blend of fact and fiction including live footage of Bush collapsing after an attempted assassination. During his own incumbency “Kill Bush” T-shirts were available for sale. During the 2008 election campaign the Democrats’ presidential candidate Barack Obama addressed these words to his supporters in Philadelphia, but with the Republicans in mind: “If they bring a knife to the fight, we’ll bring a gun”.

One could continue to quote examples of violence and war metaphors used in the US political debate. It is not a concept exclusive to the political right or Tea Party supporters as one might think by relying on selected US and European media these days, following the mass killing and assassination attempt by 22-year-old Jared Loughner against Democratic Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords in Arizona. This kind of rhetoric has a long tradition, although the emergence of new media and the wall-to-wall coverage of even the most insignificant events could lead to the impression that the tone has been sharpened.

Nor is the assassination of American politicians a phenomenon which is perpetrated solely by one side of the political spectrum. The black civil rights activist Martin Luther King was murdered by a white racist who had an extensive criminal background. President John F. Kennedy was killed by Lee Harvey Oswald, a disturbed Marxist. Kennedy’s brother Robert was victim of a Palestinian Christian’s notion that he had been betrayed by Kennedy’s support of Israel during the Six-Day-War in 1967, and the killer of controversial Alabama Governor George Wallace wanted to do something to demonstrate masculinity to the world. It would seem that political assassins throughout history have endorsed different ideologies, but what most of them had in common was that mental illness and a propensity for violent behaviour. Around one percent of the mentally ill in the US are thought to be violent, but they are responsible for half of all the murders were the perpetrator goes berserk.

This is also the case in this most recent incident. But instead of focusing the debate on how to handle those who are mentally ill and have a propensity for violence and how to stop them from gaining access to firearms, the tragic event in Arizona has been used as a political mud fight. Commentators are busy connecting the murders to the debating culture and suggesting a connection between the political rhetoric and violent episodes, even though there exists no empirical evidence to support this. It is disheartening that an insane young man’s rambling outbursts of rage should be allowed to define a crucial debate about where the lines of free speech should be drawn in an open democracy.

Of course this does not mean that violent metaphors should not be criticized. They absolutely should but not because the result is automatically more violence. No, there is every reason to criticize the violent metaphors because they undermine and destroy the public debate and the quality of the decision-making process. If the tragedy in Arizona were to drown in a political dogfight then the US as a society and a nation would be the big loser.

America does not deserve that.


mace said...

Agreed,the comments in regard to 'violent' rhetoric are just,well,more rhetoric.

From a non-American's point of view,the USA, despite its huge population, rather liberal gun laws and relatively high homicide rate,has a remarkably low level of political violence.

Gregory said...

Hey Mace, how high is the US's homicide rate relative to...Nigeria? Mexico? Sudan? How many cars get destroyed every year by fire bombs in this violent US? Ya know, opinions are like as*holes...everybody has one. Its just that some of these opinions come from intelligent, properly educated people, and some of them come from blithering idiots....

Call Me Mom said...

As I am American and a conservative, I can say that I don't think it is just rhetoric. I think it's being used to create animosity against particular groups of people.
Mostly people like myself, who found the Obama campaign rally masquerading as a memorial service to be disgusting and totally inappropriate.

mace said...


Well, I thought my comments were favorable to the US for its relative lack of political violence.

Surely the context is comparison with with other First World nations,if you want to contrast America with Mexico, Colombia or Eastern Europe it's your perogative.It never occurred to me to do so. I'm sure the USA is far more democratic the Mugabe's Zimbabwe,so what?
The fact remains that America has a high homicide and for that matter, imprisonment rate,compared to other advanced nations.
I also don't have any opinions on America's gun culture,it's Americans' business.

I certainly agree with your last sentence.

Richard said...

Thanks mace, our high homicide rate like our child death rate is based on the multi-racial nature of the population, right now most of the crime and homicide is black on black crime. As far as the gun culture goes, it is based on the old Saxon law of let all free men be armed, Britain use to have the same attitude until they started on the gun control route in 1920. As far as the political violence goes we rarely have much but I am afraid that this may be about to change.

Anonymous said...

Hi Mace: Unfortunately, I think that Gregory must have misread you as your main point was clear to me.

What is extremely dismaying to all thinking Americans is the idea that political and personal violence will begin to occur more and more often as we move forward.

One problem is our completely undefended Southern border. In Mexico, political and personal violence are routine, and we Americans are legitimately afraid that the Democratic Party and other enablers like liberal judges are literally INVITING significant political and personal violence across our undefended border. We are talking about the Mexican military using tanks and planes to cross our undefended border to accompany drug runners - and presumably traffickers of other contraband including guns, human slaves, and Muslim terrorists.

Another problem is our allowance of radical foreign-funded mosques that preach violence and recruit American-born Muslim terrorists to conduct terrorist operations in the United States and elsewhere. Aware Americans are very afraid that the Democratic Party and other enablers like liberal judges are allowing both foreign-funded mosques and paramilitary camps to operate with impunity throughout the United States. Our Muslim enemies are being allowed to operate military networks that enable Muslims to perpetrate violent political and personal attacks throughout the United States.

We have seen in the last two years that it is Obama who is the teflon President who can get away without answering the most basic questions about the MULTIPLE FRAUDS that he and his supporters appear to have willingly perpetrated upon the citizens of the United States.

With a President like Obama, it will be a very short time before the United States resembles a military dictatorship more than either a democracy or republic.

Richard said...

Egghead you aren't the only who is seeing the possibility of a military dictatorship, I wish I had a dollar for every vet, Doctor, Nurse or Pharmacist at the VA that comment on how close we are to a dictatorship. One nurse (an immigrant from Germany) says that her mother grew up in Nazi Germany and is now telling her that the US is going to way of the Weimer (sp) republic, she has also told her daughter that if she comes home and finds her in a coma not to call for an ambulance until after she is sure mom is dead. Mom refuses to live through Nazi Germany again.

Freyja's cats said...

There are still a lot of us Americans who hunt, trap and fish, and otherwise keep in touch with the wild side of life.

Some of us still look at a shotgun and see a means for providing food and warm clothing, and as a precaution against the unlikely incident of thieves or violent intruders or the odd rabid coyote, instead of a way to off any fellow citizens with whom we might politically disagree.

We Americans who cherish our 2nd Amendment rights, prefer to settle our disagreements using our 1st Amendment avenues.

The overwhelming majority of us prefer to keep the Glock snug in its holster, or, preferably, at home.

Owning one is just having a little security blanket tucked away in a safe place, to keep in the house, and not to drag around with us in public like Linus from the Peanuts cartoons.

The Founding Fathers saw fit to put freedom of speech and the press as #1, and put the guns under #2.

That means use your mouth and your pen first, and only resort to your holster or the gun cabinet in circumstances of extreme and imminent danger.

But most of all, use your head.

EscapeVelocity said...

Ive been trying to morph this "conversation" into one in which the violent hate filled rhetoric coming from the "Muslim World" and Islamic institutions and organizations, including Mosques and Friday Prayers, not to mention a large portion of its Holy Texts, is condemned for the political violence that is way beyond the occassional nutter.

Please help with this endeavor.

mace said...


We used to have relatively relaxed gun laws here in Australia until the 1990s. (I've owned firearms myself). It appears that the US might be the last 'hold out' against gun control in the English- speaking world.


I've seem some documentaries on America's huge illegal immigrant problem.Incredible.Australians get agitated if a few thousand refugees arrive on our northern coastline each year.Since Australia is an island nation our borders are easily policed and we're not very tolerant of immigrants trying to enter by the 'back door'.

One of our former Prime Ministers once said in reference to immigration policy "We will decide who comes here and when they come".That is one right I would never surrender

Nilk said...

Mace, our orders are not easily policed. Not with thousands of kilometres of coastline, a population of 20 million and a small Coast Guard and Navy (comparatively speaking).

Christmas Island is closer to Indonesia than to the mainland, we've got other Indonesian islands closer again, and plenty of places to hide once people who might not be friendly hit land.

The PM who declared that we would decide was also the PM who took away our guns. As much as I hold John Howard in high esteem, the gun laws were a misstep, and a knee-jerk reaction to Port Arthur.

I've never owned a gun, although I did go rabbit shooting as a child a couple of times. Last time when I was 14.

Gillard and Co will not loosen up the laws and give us back the freedom to choose if we want a gun or not, since she it not her own PM. She is a creature of the factions, and won't do anything without their say-so.

Nilk said...

Oops. I meant "BORDERS"!!

Apologies for the typo.