jimsleeper.com » Third Thoughts About the 2011 Tuscon Massacre

Third Thoughts About the 2011 Tuscon Massacre

(Andrew Sullivan’s Atlantic commentary on this column: https://www.theatlantic.com/daily-dish/archive/2011/01/colin-ferguson-and-jared-loughner/177102/)

By Jim Sleeper – January 18, 2011

I’m not satisfied with public discussion of the Tuscon horror. Years ago, I learned from another such massacre, on the Long Island Railroad, that deranged loners like Jared Loughner may be tuned in more acutely than the rest of us to a society’s subliminal signals and that when those undercurrents of fear and hatred are surfaced by impresarios of ethno-racial grievance, the deranged may be only the first to act on them.

I don’t know a lot about building construction, but I do know that, even in this wireless age, new wiring is still being woven into “smart buildings” in ways and for reasons most of us never see or think about. That’s true, too of a society’s subliminal currents — its fears, hatreds, its not-so-grand narratives: They’re always being channeled, sluiced, and tapped into by people who ride and weave them in ways most others don’t stop to imagine.

That’s why Pima county Sheriff Clarence Dupnik was right to say, apropos the Tuscon massacre, that “the anger, the hatred, the bigotry that goes on in this country is getting to be outrageous.”

Those last four words matter: While no good prosecutor would posit a legal connection between the unwired delusions of Loughner and the routinized delusions of Sharon “Second Amendment remedies” Angle or Tea Party demonstrators at congressional town meetings, the truth remains that deranged loners, though separated from us in many ways, are bound into our subconscious hatreds and fears more intimately than the law can acknowledge and most of us care to admit.

Yes, reporters and pundits often draw such connections too quickly. “When disaster strikes,” notes T. A. Frank in The New Republic, journalists “have to …. take mental shortcuts, calling up established narratives… for new and more ambiguous facts.”

I noted similarly almost 15 years ago, in Liberal Racism, that reporters, “[p]lunged daily into a torrent of actors and events out of which they must make some sense on a deadline,… use whatever story lines or narratives are already in their heads or easily at hand.”

But while Frank is criticizing liberal journalists for taking a cue from Sheriff Dupnik to blame Loughner’s hatred on conservatives, I was criticizing them for letting well-worn narratives of black victimhood eclipse a more direct connection: between the 1993 shooting rampage of deranged black loner Colin Ferguson against 25 white Long island Rail Road passengers, six of whom died, and a black radio station, WLIB.

Ferguson was an avid listener to the station, whose morning talk show hosts were spewing so much racial bile at that time, including metaphorical death threats against white journalists, that Nat Hentoff wrote station owner Percy Sutton to ask if he’d ever thought what would happen if some deranged loner took the rhetoric seriously. Sutton didn’t respond and the rhetoric rolled on.

So far, we’ve seen no similarly likely connection between Loughner’s delusional fear that government is controlling our grammar and Angle’s call for “Second Amendment remedies” or Tea Partiers’ delusional demand that government take its hands off their Medicaid. But those of us who aren’t actually prosecuting Loughner and want to track the Tuscon massacre’s extralegal undercurrents or wiring don’t need to prove a legal or policy connection.

All we need to show is what Dupnik showed: that our public sphere is crackling with incitements to violent hatred of government and that Loughner probably picked up such signals in his own weird way before ranting against and then shooting government officials.

In 1985, the black poet Julius Lester noted presciently, nine years before Colin Ferguson shot those commuters, that violent rhetoric such as Louis Farrakhan’s at that time was “subtly but surely creating an atmosphere in America where hatreds of all kinds will be easier to express openly, and one day, in some as yet unknown form, those hatreds will ride commuter trains into the suburbs. By then it will be too late for us all.” (Lester’s comments and mine are on the second item on the pdf I’ve linked here.)

Ferguson’s deed underscored the extra-legal truth that — again — some psychotics are tuned in more acutely than the rest of us to a society’s subliminal signals and that, if those undercurrents of fear and hatred are surfaced by impresarios of ethno-racial grievance, the deranged may be only the first to act on them. That truth was also bared in the lethal rage of former Brooklyn resident Baruch Goldstein, who massacred 29 Palestinians at prayer on the West Bank only months after Ferguson’s rampage.

The violent congressional town hall meetings of 2009, too, reminded me of some violent white leftist (as well as segregationist) histrionics of the 1960s. In his book The Sixties, Todd Gitlin recalls some young radicals’ belief that, as a Weatherman communiqué put it, “Smashing the pig means smashing the pig inside ourselves, destroying our own honkiness…. We are against everything that’s ‘good and decent’ in honky America….”

Including, as I recall quite vividly, anything having to do with government.

“No alternative theory or action crystallized from the murk of the collective despair,” Gitlin wrote. “They’re crazy, one heard [of the worst militants], but you have to admit they’ve got guts. Anyway, are you so sure they’re wrong?” By Gitlin’s estimate, between September 1969 and May 1970 there were some 250 “bombings and attempts linkable with the white left…. the explosions amplified, as usual, by the mass media.”

What matters now isn’t that we establish lethal symmetries among leftist terrorists, black or white, and right-wing militias, or that we prove Loughner was glued to Fox News. What matters is public recognition that, in all such cases, a politics that turns on allusions and provocations to killing portends the death of politics.

The angels of that death aren’t always as composed (or, as “heroic”) as Weatherman member Kathy Boudin or the racist militia-bomber Timothy McVeigh. Just as often, they’re as fallen and tormented as a Charles Manson, a Colin Ferguson, or a Jared Loughner. It’s they whom Angle and Palin are provoking, intentionally or not.

Palin and her enablers — one of whom, William Kristol, once applauded warnings like mine against the smooth-talking fanatics who handed Colin Ferguson his bloody script — can’t dodge all blame and self-scrutiny. Nor, I should think, can anyone deny that there are capitalist and spiritualist dimensions to that wiring beneath the law that will have to be reckoned with in ways that neither left nor right have done all that well.


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