Psycho-Killers and “Political” Violence

In 2009 a troubled army psychiatrist named Nidal Malik Hasan went on a shooting spree at Fort Hood, killing 13 people while allegedly screaming “Allah Akbar.”  Hasan had suffered persistent mental health issues.  He had also been viewing Islamic extremist websites.  An Al Qaida-affiliated cleric in Yemen praised the incident.

Last September a man stormed the Discovery Channel building and took several hostages.   He had been involved in bizarre, incoherent protests against the television giant related in some manner to environmental concerns.

Last February Joseph Stack flew a private plane into the IRS building in Austin, killing himself along with one worker in the building.  Stack was involved in disputes with the government over taxes and left behind a rambling manifesto and an anti-government website.

And today a man shot up a public meeting hosted by Rep. Giffords in Tuscon killing several people and critically injuring the Congresswoman.  Giffords narrowly won re-election last year against a Tea Party-backed candidate who made heavy use of military imagery and guns in the campaign.  We know little about the shooter apart from the bizarre and incoherent recordings he left on YouTube.

These incidents share a few characteristics.  In each case, a mentally ill perpetrator committed an act of violence with some veneer of political motivation.  Bloggers and commentators in each situation tried to tie the incident to their opponents or religious minorities.  All of these were random acts of violence with no authentic political connection.

There should be some addendum to Godwin’s Law addressing apparent political violence which is in fact committed by a random lunatic.  We will probably discover that the Tea Party carries no more responsibility for the attack on Rep. Giffords than Martin Scorsese bears for the assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan.  We’re all in too much of a hurry to reap the political benefits of a family’s personal disaster.

Jumping to blame in situations like this is a lot like calling our opponents “Nazi’s.”  It clouds debate, it hardens ingrained opinions, and it makes it more difficult for all of us to grapple with real political violence when it occurs.

Personally, I have no sympathy for the Tea Party Movement.  I think their irresponsible rhetoric is in fact creating an atmosphere in which genuine political violence will be almost inevitable.  There’s a decent, though misdirected summary of that problem here.  But this is plainly not that violence.  Those who are jumping to conclusions to score points off of this incident are trivializing a terrible tragedy.

Perhaps, as  we learn more about this gunman and the wider situation some political motive will emerge, but right now that seems highly unlikely.  Every initial indication suggests that this gunman was about as politically aware as Squeaky Fromme.  Out of respect for the victims and for the integrity of our system, we should resist those who would use violence for political advantage in any form – either the perpetrators, or blame-spreaders.

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