American Nihilism

For all the handwringing over whether the gut-wrenching massacre in Tucson, Ariz., was the result of America’s virulent political discourse, the handwringing itself quickly became another instance of the virulence, and then the inanity, of American political discourse.

First, liberal writers declared that Jared Lee Loughner was the product of right-wing incitement: Sarah Palin shamefully putting crosshairs over liberal congressmen’s districts; Michele Bachmann’s call to Tea Party legions to be “armed and dangerous”; the unbelievable rhetorical fury against President Obama; the right-wing portrayal of the president as Hitler.

Then the vigilant powers of the Internet revealed that, in fact, Loughner was an atheist who spouted, insofar as they were coherent at all, both right- and left-wing ideas. So other liberal writers added that even if he wasn’t the creation of right-wing incitement to violence, he was the product of the violent atmosphere that the right-wing incitement to violence had created.

It then emerged that Loughner might be mentally ill. Yes, cried still other liberal writers. Maybe he is insane, and maybe he is not a right-winger, but you take the right-wing atmosphere of hatred, combine it with easy access to automatic weapons, and it becomes lethal when added to mental illness.

Conservative writers quickly used the insanity defense to exculpate the Palins and the Bachmanns. Other conservative writers struck back with examples of left-wing incitement to violence: the liberal blogger Markos Moulitsas shamefully putting a bull’s-eye on Rep. Gabrielle Giffords because she was a Blue Dog Democrat; Obama’s threat to Republicans in 2008 that “if they bring a knife to the fight, we bring a gun”; the unbelievable fury against President George W. Bush; the left-wing portrayal of Bush as Hitler.

After a fleeting online eternity of each side giving gainful employment to the other, some liberal and conservative pundits reached a sort of synthesis of opposites. It wasn’t right-wing hatred, or left-wing hatred, or the general lack of civility in American politics that caused Loughner to unleash his slaughter in Tucson.

No, it was the “shadowy” world of “crazy” inhabited by America’s assassins, a hermetically sealed Da Vinci Code realm sealed against all outer influences and driven by an internal logic all its own.

The discourse following the Tucson shootings was all the more mind numbing because no one wanted to talk about the elephant in the room. The uncomfortable fact is that we share the same culture as Loughner. We swim in it; we bask in it. Loughner’s YouTube ravings are like a perverted reflection of ideas and sentiments that are our daily bread.

It goes without saying that we are not all potential Jared Lee Loughners. We are decent, ironic, cosmopolitan people horrified by the Loughners of the world, are we not? We are not killers no matter how much we enjoy being diverted by the spectacle of killing in movies, TV shows and video games. But a mountain slide pulls down everyone, good and evil, innocent and corrupt, in its rush to the bottom. We all dwell complacently among the same cultural assumptions. Some of those assumptions are helping to drive society, through no conscious purpose of their own, to the bottom. The feeble-minded, like Loughner, are the first to sink.

But so many of us refuse to acknowledge the context we all share. Hours after the Tucson murders, some commentators myopically asked if Congress would ever be the same. The idea that the shooting might have the effect of changing the way Congress does the national business was an insult to one particularly agonizing symptom of our collective anguish.

America has more mass murders, unrelated to politics or criminal business, than any other prosperous, peacetime, democratic country. Yet when a member of Congress is shot along with other innocent people, Congress becomes concerned about mass murder. It wasn’t long after Tucson that figures in both parties started saying there should be more bipartisanship. But why does concern for their own welfare suddenly make the politicians speak words with meaning, and not concern for ours, or concern for the social and economic forces that drive some people over the edge and put us all in jeopardy?

Is it really true that Congress will consider working more in the public interest only after one of their own is heinously assaulted? Is it true that they will stop the self-sustaining and self-serving pendulum of blame and invective only after a congressman has been shot? Another Jared Lee Loughner is out there, asking himself the same question.

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