We got a glimpse of the future this week, in several ways. One of those ways is really a continuation of something we’ve been living with for several decades. We have crazy people wandering around now – some of them the equivalent of bombs waiting to go off when we least expect it. In the past – but well within my own lifetime – we used to care for such people in institutions, where they couldn’t hurt themselves or anyone else. They were properly looked after, fed and medicated in clean, orderly hospitals for the mentally disturbed.
As they say, that was then and this is now. Compassionate commitment of insane, deranged and emotionally disturbed people was substantially curtailed in the 1960s and ‘70s. This result was produced by a strong liberal movement to get thousands of such people released so they could live independently in society, instead of in institutions. First Lady Rosalynn Carter was a highly visible champion of this modern concept of “compassion.” Her efforts brought us uncountable numbers of “homeless” people who now haunt parks, parking garages, and subway stations in every city and town in the country. They live there, wild, with no fixed address. No one knows how many there are.
During Republican administrations, homeless people become hot properties for Democrat politicians who tout them as evidence of “heartless” policies that cause poverty and suffering. During Democrat administrations, you don’t hear as much about this, although the homeless-count doesn’t change.
The fact is that homeless people have little to do with poverty programs or any other aspect of national policy, except for the decision to let them roam wild, as mentioned above. Homeless people generally resist all attempts to bring them into shelter for proper nourishment and medical care. They live on the streets because, basically, they like to live on the streets. This doesn’t deter political opportunists from claiming that their opponents’ policies are to blame…but I digress.
Every so often a crazy person, who would have been institutionalized in an earlier time, commits a crime. Sometimes it’s a truly horrible crime. That’s what happened this past week. Even Hottentots in Africa now know that on Saturday, January 8th, a crazed gunman named Jared Loughner opened fire without warning on a crowd attending a political gathering at a shopping mall in Tucson, Arizona. Armed with a large-clip semi-automatic pistol, the shooter killed six persons and wounded another score before bystanders subdued him and took his weapon away. One of the dead was U.S. District Judge John Roll; another was 9-year-old Christina-Taylor Green. Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was seriously wounded by a bullet to the head. She is fighting for her life in a local hospital. At this writing, her survival appears probable, although her long-term recovery-prognosis is not yet known.
As a people, Americans have significant strengths: generosity, courage, compassion, tolerance, and other fine qualities. But we have some weaknesses, too. One of these is a tendency to play “let’s pretend” when a situation doesn’t seem to affect us, personally. We have done that with the issue of crazy people in our midst. By pretending that it doesn’t really matter if loonies are hanging in our parks, accosting tourists for money, and defecating in the stairwells of parking garages, we invite an eventual calumny. Like a loose grenade rolling around, one of these nuts is bound to go off sooner or later. “Later” arrived last week in Tucson.
News media and politicians are now doing much public hand-wringing over how such a thing could happen. But the warning signs were there all along. Scarcely a word is said about the “mainstreaming” of mentally disturbed people. We’re not learning anything here. I sometimes wonder if we can.
In the case of Jared Loughner, the signs and portents abounded. His internet postings about government attempts to control us through “grammar” were beyond bizarre. His actions at the college he attended were reportedly so strange and so menacing that authorities finally expelled him. He was clearly a nut-case. People around him knew it, yet there was no legal authority for placing him in some kind of institution where he could be treated and the public could be protected. This is the legacy of the permissive 1960s era. Until we overthrow it, we shall continue to suffer from its destructive effects.
Unfortunately, another of our societal flaws is a need to fix blame when something untoward occurs. We’ve been like this since the Year One. (I have no doubt that the Continental Congress held hearings to find out why the Revolution was dragging on so long.) We want every bad event to be someone’s fault, so the rest of us can skate without culpability. Maybe this is Human Nature. It’s certainly American Nature.
Politicians and political sympathizers in the Mainstream Media know this about the American character, of course. Lately, Democrats and Democrat-leaning reporters have taken to blaming Republicans – and especially Tea Party followers – for creating a “climate of violence” through conservative political discourse on TV and talk-radio. This accusation arises in full force whenever some violent or potentially violent event occurs.
When a man attempted to set off a car-bomb in Times Square last spring, media talking heads immediately suggested a probable Tea Party connection. When it developed that the would-be bomber was actually a Muslim (don’t you just hate that?), various TV personalities – including MSNBC host Contessa Brewer – were visibly bummed. They so wanted it to be an angry, white redneck tea-bagger who had set the explosive, which fortunately malfunctioned.
This pattern has continued in the aftermath of the Tucson shootout. When the news broke that Rep. Giffords had been wounded, reporters and pundits immediately stampeded after the suggestion that the shooter had been motivated by political animus toward Democrats – probably egged on by talk radio and the Tea Party’s hostility toward Democratic policies, and by other conservative talking-points. The chorus reached the fortissimo level when liberal pundits, including Keith Olberman, began blaming Sarah Palin for directly inspiring the shooter – despite a lack of any evidence to support such a claim. One congressman called for a resurrection of the Fairness Doctrine to control conservative speech.
As the week progressed, evidence began to leak out that the shooter, Loughner, was not political, was neither right-wing nor left-wing, hated broadcast news, and had never attended a Tea Party rally. Instead, he was exposed as a known nut-case, as described above. He was entirely in his own world, and he had evidently struck out at someone who seemed to represent authority. Nevertheless, the smearing of Mrs. Palin, the Tea Party, and conservative talk-radio has marched on, undeterred by any facts.
In the midst of it all, President Obama turned a “memorial service” for the victims into a political pep-rally for…who else? Himself! The service was held at the University of Arizona basketball arena, with overflow provided at the football stadium. Insider reports reveal that the service was delayed until special T-shirts could be prepared for distribution to the attendees.
The T-shirts, plus a great crowd of cheering students gave the event the feel of a sporting event instead of a solemn occasion to mourn innocent people struck down by senseless violence. Mr. Obama was at his oratorical best, but he used the event to promote his administration, his policies, and himself. As one writer pointed out, the event was not meant to showcase Mr. Obama’s particular vision for “civility” in political discourse – especially since politics had nothing to do with the shooting.
Media-and political-reactions to the Tucson violence point to the future for our country. It is a depressing prospect, but it doesn’t have to be so if people refuse to accept the premise that one political side is “causing” violence – when there is no evidence to support that notion.
My political memory goes back a long way – to 1950, when two Puerto Rican nationalists broke into the grounds of the Blair House, where President Truman was residing because of remodeling at the White House. In their attempt to kill Mr. Truman, one assassin was killed and the other wounded. Three Secret Service agents were also wounded in a wild gun-battle on the grounds of the mansion.
In the aftermath of that assassination attempt, there were no accusations by media, or by Democrats or Republicans, charging that the policies or political discourse of one political side or the other had “caused” the violence. Nor were there such accusations in the aftermath of the Pearl Harbor attack, in 1941, that FDR’s policies had motivated the Japanese to attack (even though this was at least partially true).
We didn’t do such things then, and there is no reason why we can’t return to that same “civility” again. Things will remain in the present sorry state only so long as reasonable people let unprincipled politicians, pundits and news-readers make scurrilous, unsupported charges. It really must stop. Let’s cut it out. Instead, let’s concentrate on getting the nuts back in the nuthouse where they belong.