President Reagan said, “We must reject the idea that every time a law’s broken, society is guilty rather than the lawbreaker. It is time to restore the American precept that each individual is accountable for his actions.” Acts of monstrous criminality stand on their own. They begin and end with the criminals who commit them, not collectively with all the citizens of a state, not with those who listen to talk radio, not with maps of swing districts used by both sides of the aisle, not with law-abiding citizens who respectfully exercise their First Amendment rights at campaign rallies, not with those who proudly voted in the last election.
-Gov. Sarah Palin
Much though I despise what she has come to stand for as a public figure, there is no question that Governor Palin is able to grasp and articulate the zeitgeist in a way that resonates. While I disagree with her conclusion, I agree that individual versus collective causality and responsibility is the axis around which the discussion of Jared Loughner’s action will hinge. Unfortunately, our justifiable desire for certainty must here be frustrated, because the answer to who was responsible, the individual or the society in which he lived, must be both.
Loughner is mentally ill ex post facto by virtue of his actions. Irrespective of whether they contained an internal coherence or articulable logic, anyone who chooses to do such things has a functional impairment, and clinically significant symptoms. This position is a prerequisite for any coherent community to exist. And while, as President Obama said in Tucson last night, his actions epitomize the extent to which many things in the world are unknowable, I do not think leaving the inquiry at the bounds of individual reason does any of us credit.
In the wake of Columbine anti-bullying programs in schools have grown many-fold. While few people hold the peers of Harris and Klebold directly responsible for their evil acts, so to do few question the direct logic of anti-bullying programs growing out of such a tragedy. We admit, however reluctantly, that larger social conditions must necessarily influence the development, thoughts, and actions of individuals. Where else would those thoughts and choices come from? Just as our collective identity and consciousness emanates from the multitudes which form it, so too must that collective zeitgeist, our national identity, emanate from the people of whom it consists. The two evolve in concert, because one could not exist without the other.
The President admits as much in his speech, saying:
For the truth is none of us can know exactly what triggered this vicious attack. None of us can know with any certainty what might have stopped these shots from being fired, or what thoughts lurked in the inner recesses of a violent man’s mind. Yes, we have to examine all the facts behind this tragedy. We cannot and will not be passive in the face of such violence. We should be willing to challenge old assumptions in order to lessen the prospects of such violence in the future. But what we cannot do is use this tragedy as one more occasion to turn on each other. That we cannot do. That we cannot do.
This is where I take issue with Sarah Palin. For her to condemn (in a polysyllabism new to her public discourse) the “blood libel” that is suggesting that her rhetoric and mode of political thought may have contributed to the structural violence which underpins Loughners actions is too much. Those words from the woman who invented the death panels lie and injected it into the health care, those words from the woman who has become a master of capitalizing on the basest fears of citizens to gain attention, those words go too far. They are, among other things, too rich in contradiction and irony.
At the very least we’ve seen this week, clearer than ever, the setup for the 2012 election. It will be, in voice and tone if not directly person v. person, Obama against Palin.
On that basis, and on the strengths and weaknesses revealed in their respective speeches this week, I make a prediction: Not that Obama will win by 55% or more of the popular vote (which he will). That is too obvious. I predict that, when I am 90, the next two years will be regarded as a period of presidential productivity and profundity to rival FDR and the new deal and Jefferson and the Louisiana Purchase. Sit back, watch, and be amazed.