Posted by: thealienist | January 12, 2011

Thoughts About the Arizona Shooting

There has been a lot of discussion about the potential causes of the assassination attempt in Arizona.  Some of the input has been helpful, but much of it has been needlessly aggressive or defensive.  I think it might be helpful to have an enlightened discussion about this incident and how we might come to understand it.

First, it is clear that the main responsibility for the shooting lies with the shooter.  I haven’t seen (and can’t even imagine) any argument that would exonerate him.  True, he might eventually be found not guilty by reason of insanity (I don’t know because I have never met him or examined him), but this does not mean that he is not responsible, simply not guilty.  Some people are happy to stop the behavioral analysis here, though this ignores the influences of his environment.

Second, it is interesting to consider what kinds of influence the shooter’s environment might have played in shaping his actions.  These considerations are necessarily vague due to the fact that most of us know little about his development, family environment, school, friends, work, political views, patterns of media exposure, etc.  Still, we may perhaps venture a few thoughts — 1)  There were qualities in his primary victim that made her a potential target; 2) There were qualities in society that made the shooting more probable (though in no way likely); and 3) There were qualities in the shooter what made him a potential violent individual.

Some might object to examining the shooting victim for the qualities that made her a potential target.  It is often incorrectly labeled “blaming the victim,” but it is not.  I do not blame the congresswoman for getting shot, but neither do I think that the assassin chose his victim randomly.  The congresswoman was a powerful figure in her district, and this power made her a more attractive target than many more anonymous people in the community.  In addition, she was engaged in an adversarial activity (politics) in a closely divided community.  In fact, her district was hotly contested by the two main political parties in their efforts to maintain (or obtain) political control of the legislative branch of the federal government.  Also, she apparently made it a habit to hold meetings in the community to present her views and to hear and respond to the views of her constituents.  While this might have led some to feel less angry, it might also have simply reinforced the anger of some who saw and heard only more examples of whatever qualities they hated.  Might there be other qualities that made her a target?  Perhaps being a woman, white, Jewish, trusting, or any other quality you can think of?  Perhaps.  We may never know for sure.

While many are reluctant to search for causes of violent behavior in the victim, many also refuse to consider social qualities among the causes.  Just as I do not believe that the shooter selected his target at random, I do not believe that his actions would have been equally likely to have occurred in every society.  I do not believe that this kind of shooting would have occurred in a society with more restricted access to handguns and large capacity clips.  I believe that this kind of activity would be less likely to occur in a society where violence (physical, emotional, and rhetorical) is detested rather than admired or used for entertainment.  I believe that this behavior would be more rare in a society that was motivated less by fear and hatred and more by hope and understanding.  This behavior might also have been prevented in a society that more readily identified the mentally ill and required treatment.  All of the above may be so (though they may also be debated), but we have the society we have for a reason.  Perhaps we don’t know any better.  Perhaps we are willing to accept the risks in order to enjoy the freedom.  Perhaps it is the way we are built.  Regardless of why our society is as it is or whether it is changeable, we are willfully blind if we ignore how society influences our behavior.

Finally, what can we know about the shooter that made him potentially violent?  First, let’s dispense with the frequently mentioned idea that if the causes were to be found in the victim or in society then everyone would have done the shooting.  Those simple-minded people who believe this must repudiate the germ theory of disease.  We are all surrounded daily by pathogenic bacteria and viruses, but we do not all get sick.  Why?  Because the germs must find a suitable host in which to grow and disrupt the bodily systems.  So, too, with the causes of violence.  they must find a suitable host — a mind that is susceptible to its hatred, a will either strong enough to carry through an indefensible act or weak enough not to be able to withstand the hateful impulse, or a conscience so feeble, paralyzed, or perverse that it is insensitive to the value of a fellow man.

None of the above should be construed to excuse the gunman’s legal responsibility for the shooting.  Rather, I hope that we can examine the effects of our choices as a society and as individuals.  We elevate people to powerful positions and use them as foci for those things we believe in or despise.  In doing so, we take mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, husbands, and wives and make them targets for abuse of all kinds.  We allow the tools of violence to be freely available, and efforts to exert reasonable control gets amplified and twisted into the hyperbole of the government wanting to take away all guns or allow everyone to have whatever weapon they want.  Our t.v. shows, movies, video games, and news are full of glorified violence — either overt or disguised as the heroic response to criminal/combat violence.  Anger and hatred are the primary political motivators.  The allure of the positive is temporary, but hate grows and persists.  And sometimes, all this finds its home in a susceptible mind.  What should be do with these susceptible individuals?  Who is allowed (or able) to decide if they are dangers or not?  Can we be sure that the decision will be made fairly?  So far we have erred on the side of individual freedom at the cost of some security.  You may consider this wise or unwise, but one thing is for sure — the recent events in Arizona show us the price we pay for the decisions we collectively make.

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