We Are Not Weaker Than the Tyrants

“All violence consists in some people forcing others, under threat of suffering or death, to do what they do not want to do. And therefore those who are coerced will only do that which they do not wish to do while they are weaker than the tyrants and cannot avoid doing it from fear of the threats for not fulfilling what is demanded. As soon as they grow stronger, they naturally not only cease to do what they do not want to do, but, embittered by the struggle against their oppressors and everything they have had to suffer from them, they first free themselves from the tyrants, and then, in their turn, force their opponents to do what they regard as good and necessary. It would therefore seem evident that the struggle between oppressors and oppressed cannot unite people but, on the contrary, the further it progress the further it divides them.” — Leo Tolstoy, “The Law of Love and the Law of Violence”

It was a political act committed by a weak man. Don’t let any sugarcoating naif or maundering bumpkin scared to stare down the truth tell you that it wasn’t.

Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, a pragmatic Blue Dog Democrat in Arizona, was shot in the head at point blank range while holding an informal town hall meeting at a supermarket. A federal judge is dead. Five others, including a nine-year-old, are also dead. They did not want to be dead.

These were assassinations. Assaults on people who, never mind their party, wished to engage in civil discourse. It was a secret attack designed with a political point in mind — one that told us that, no matter where our position on the political spectrum, our thoughts and feelings were lesser if they didn’t mesh with yours.

The assassinations were committed by a psychologically imbalanced and irrational man with a gun. But we still don’t know for sure if Jared Lee Loughner was inspired by Sarah Palin’s now removed, now infamous map, which targeted Rep. Giffords and 19 other people with a prescription to the solution. We may never know. And we may never know if he really wanted to do what he did. What we do know is that Loughner was coerced and he felt that what he was doing was good and necessary. His YouTube videos tell us this. Loughner thought that “the population of dreamers in the United States of America is less than 5%.” A recent study revealed that one in 20 adult Americans experienced psychological problems during their childhood years. Or about 5%. But maybe Loughner was referring to some other faction. It was all set down in his head. Why didn’t we feeble peons comprehend his genius?

The new question — offered not long after the NewSouth scrubbing of words from Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn — is whether or not an actual assassination, especially one committed by a man with psychological problems, is equal to the suggestion of an assassination.

This afternoon, Jack Shafer made a case for inflamed rhetoric, responding to knee-jerk suggestions that the debate must be turned down with a less classier riff on Voltaire: “I’ll punch out the lights of anybody who tries to take it away from me.” But Shafer’s swiftly typed sentiments may have arrived too late. Already, Rep. Robert Brady will be introducing legislation that will make it a federal crime for a person to use symbols or language that someone might perceive as a threat or an inciting to violence against a federal official.

This is overkill. There are already laws on the book (specifically 18 U.S.C. § 876 and 18 U.S.C. § 876) that deal with this. If you knowingly threaten a judge, a law enforcement officer, or a federal officer with death, you will face a fine and ten years of imprisonment if you are convicted.

What makes Brady’s proposed legislation insidious is the way he takes “knowingly” out of the equation altogether. Threats may be expanded to the manner in which someone perceives a threat. And this is an alarming attack against free expression: an altogether different assassination telling us that some forms of vitriol, swiftly reduced to calmness after one has expressed it, are lesser because they don’t mesh with Rep. Brady’s view of the universe.

Does Brady’s legislation mean that Shafer can be arrested because some looneytune reading his column perceived his “punch out the lights” sentence as an excuse to attack a member of Congress? If I suggest that Rep. Brady’s house should be TPed before the week is up (and I append a symbolic Photoshop image to the clearly satirical suggestion), and some nut job attempts to kill Rep. Brady by stuffing several rolls of toilet paper down his mouth, then should I be accused of inciting the nut job to violence?

The proposed Brady legislation, predicated upon the myth of zero tolerance, assumes that the person who lets off steam can keep track of every person who is listening. The legislation is a perfectly understandable reaction, but one motivated by fear rather than reason. Fear isn’t the best emotion with which to consider the full implications. Consider Rep. Brady’s alarmingly autocratic response at the end of the CNN article: “Why would you be against it?”

And why would you assume that every American will act like Loughner?

Loughner’s videos are an incoherent hodgepodge of senseless syllogisms: an insane nightmare founded upon notions of currency, grammar, the number 8, and a medley of perceived slights. Loughner announces in his welcome video that his favorite activity “is conscience dreaming; the greatest inspiration for my political business information. Some of you don’t dream — sadly.”

We’ve been here before, of course. On November 18, 1978, Congressman Leo J. Ryan was killed in the line of duty. The cause was the cult of Jonestown. The cult killed Ryan, a Temple defector, and three journalists. 918 people drank the Flavor Aid that evening.

But that was in Guyana, not our home turf. The terror went down in a place remote enough for psychological experts to offer “rational explanations of how humans can be conditioned to commit such irrational acts” (as Time put it on December 4, 1978). The news was horrifying, but we still understood then the irrational had infringed upon the rational. Ryan had been assassinated. In 1978, the Internet did not exist to present us with an image.

The above picture comes from Mamta Popat at the Arizona Daily Star. The caption reads:

Jackie Storer, right, tries her best to figure out the clues on a giant crossword as Jared Loughner, a volunteer, stands in the background during the Tuscon Festival of Books.

One is struck not just by the “clues” contained in the photo’s crossword, but by the clues contained in Loughner’s stance. His right foot juts forward against the sidewalk and he hangs his right arm languorously against the crossword display. Does he know the clues already? Even accounting for the photographer’s posing instructions, Jackie Storer clearly isn’t noticing him.

But do any of these observations permit us to better understand Loughner?

There are bullies who horde all the wealth and keep good people unemployed. There are bullies who grope us when we don’t want to be violated by a backscatter X-ray. There are bullies who berate us and scare us and feed us misinformation. There are bullies who foreclose on our homes because we failed to comprehend the language above the dotted line when we were young and hungry and wanted some stake in the American dream.

On Saturday, we learned that the bullies are within our fold. They’re waiting patiently around us, providing us with “clues” just before they pull out the gun. Should we stop believing in humanity?

A cynic will tell you that Saturday’s senseless violence confirmed America’s station as a savage nation. A soul seeking vengeance will point to the Palin map, its three targets hovering over Arizona and impugning the narcissist who saw fit to publicize the two-hour finale of Sarah Palin’s Alaska on her Twitter feed before offering empty condolences.

The cynic and the vigilante are both right, but we may soon be asked to test our core constitutional values.

The time has come to fight tooth and nail to maintain the last of our rights to free speech, freedom of assembly, and freedom of mind. This can all be done without a single bullet or a knowing threat. The time has come to stand up to men like Robert Brady, who cannot see how their seemingly helpful acts turn them into bullies who ask the uncivilized question, “Why would you be against it?” Because, Representative Brady, we are not weaker than the tyrants. And we do not want to see another civilized soul fall down the rabbit hole.