It’s been interesting to watch the appearance, rising, falling, and disappearance of thoughts and feelings within myself in connection with the shooting in Arizona. Being someone who naturally starts looking beyond a given event, seeking to see it embedded within it’s larger context, my mind has been all over the place over the past few days.
I’m finding the myriad of culpability denials, political spinnings, angry tirades, and accusations that have been occurring are hard to swallow. Accepting the collective reality we are creating, not just around this issue, but so many others, feels like fatalism. It’s astounding to me, for example, that Buddhists who, in one breath, speak of the importance of the precepts and then, in another breath, say that the angry, violent political rhetoric that has engulfed U.S. politics had no impact on the man who shot up a political meet and greet. But then I remember that I fail to see the depth of the teachings in my own life plenty, so why should it surprise me so much?
People want to pin the crazy label on Mr. Loughner, but I’d say it’s the mass dissociation from responsibility for public speech that’s pretty damned insane. Freedom of speech never, ever meant freedom from responsibility, but try telling that to members of a nation swamped in a consumerist mentality that equates liberation with being able to do say anything you want without consequence. Where everything from education to romantic relationships to spiritual practices have become subjects of a multiple choice brand of thinking that places more value in ones ability to dispose of people and practices deemed not “the biggest and the best,” than it does on commitment and faith in life’s process.
When the Fort Hood shooting occurred, it was hard to locate voices calling for patience from any part of the political spectrum calling for suspension of judgments around motives. President Obama tried, to his credit, but was mostly lambasted for it. No, what happened in that case was the swift and mostly united determination that Major Hassan was both crazy and a terrorist. Everything he read, the lectures he gave, and all of his e-mail correspondences were combed for connections with militant Muslim groups from the beginning, with the news media reporting anything and everything that showed a potential link. In fact, when new sources of information dried up, media outlets and pundits resorted to repeating old story lines to keep the general public primed with a view that this guy was probably a terrorist.
I write this not to defend Major Hassan’s actions. He is still responsible for those murders. And clearly the violent rhetoric he read and the correspondences he had with a prominent anti-American, radical Muslim cleric had an impact on his thought and decision making processes.
So, why is it that when white men in America commit heinous crimes it’s all about them being isolated, crazy individuals? Could it be institutional racism? I say, “Damn right, it’s institutional racism!”
Anyone remember Joe Stack? If not, he’s the guy who crashed his plane into a IRS building in Texas. Some deemed him crazy. Others, like his daughter and members of anti-tax groups, continue to consider him a hero and a patriot. And like the current case in Arizona, Stack’s writings on various subjects were quickly deemed the ramblings of an incoherent, angry man, and not tied to any larger context.
Let’s broaden out a little more. Around the world, members of racial, ethnic, and religious minorities who commit violent acts are often treated completely differently from members of the majority group who commit similar acts. Consider the way violence by Palestinians is treated in Israel, a tiny nation with quite a power military backed by billions of dollars and logistical support from the U.S. Or consider the way members of the ethnic Karen are treated by the Myanmar government and Burmese elites. Christian missionaries in Pakistan, Iran, and a few other middle east nations have been murdered or put in jail, often not for committing physically violent acts, but for speaking against Islam, or attempting to convert people. These are just a few of the myriad of examples. They all look different due to the social and cultural contexts of their given places. However, what’s similar is how the actions of either single members of, or a small group of, a religious or racial/ethnic minority is considered indicative of the entire group.
Thus, a single Muslim’s man’s act on a military base was considered by many Americans to be a sign that all Muslims are out to “destroy America.” A ragtag group of Palestinians set off some bombs, and it’s a sign that all Palestinians are out to “destroy Israel”. A few small groups of Christian missionaries try to convert people in Iran, and Christians are suddenly considered so much of a threat that the government begins arresting them.
Yet, if you flip over the equation in all three situations, it’s treated completely differently. The violence of white men in the U.S. is almost always treated as a form of individual, pathological deficiency. The violence of Jewish Israelis is almost always couched in a rhetoric of defense, often heroic defense. The violence of Muslims in Middle Eastern nations, especially when that violence is aimed at religious and ethnic minorities, is often either spun off as fringe lunacy or is elevated to heroicism as well.
This trend is not just linked to oppression of religious minorities. Last night, I watched a film about a small group of young radical German socialists who committed acts of terrorism in the 1970s, and who were then protected by operatives from the East German government throughout the 1980′s. Based on research done by the director, the film attempted to show how those who committed violence that supported the aims of the East German socialist government were sometimes considered “sympathetic characters” by the authorities, and worthy of state aid. It was quite telling however that as soon as the Berlin wall fell, and the government began to collapse, the same government officials publicly outed the radicals as terrorists, and destroyed any evidence of past connections with them. This is a great example of the ways in which violence done by members of the majority group in a nation can be spun in different ways, depending upon whether it benefits those in power or not.
Had Jared Lee Loughner flipped out as an American in Iraq, Afghanistan, or Pakistan, you can bet the narratives being spun about his actions would be different. Had Joe Stack chosen to crash his plane into the White House or the Pentagon, you can bet the narratives around him would also be different. But in neither case would you find serious questioning of the man’s religious or racial background, regardless of the circumstances.
I’ve long felt that one of the weaknesses of Buddhism in “the West” (I really want to figure out a better term for this, but that’s for another day.) is that too many practitioners have a “privatized” approach to the teachings. What do I mean by that? Well, take a teaching like Right Speech. The average convert practitioner understands that attempting to speak from a kind, compassionate place with those within their immediate lives is an important part of practice. However, I can’t tell you how often I have heard and seen discussions around large scale social and political issues where Right Speech gets thrown under the bus because people want to either avoid entrance in politics (an impossible task folks!) or because the words in question came from members of the political group a person most affiliates with. I doubt many liberal Buddhists had much to say about right speech in 2006, when former Presidential candidate John Kerry joked about killing “the real bird with one stone” in reference to then President Bush.
Overall, I’d say the use of violent rhetoric is more prominent amongst Republicans and other conservatives right now, but it’s certainly not exclusive to them. And while it’s quite impossible, and pointless, to try and point out every act of dangerous political speech that occurs, I think it’s vitally important that more people both speak out against the trends of violent social/political rhetoric, recognizing that it DOES negatively impact all of us. And perhaps more importantly, more of us need to make efforts to embody a more compassionate and principled way of talking and doing politics and social issues.
This includes beginning to reject electoral candidates that use personal attacks, hate speech, and violent metaphors as central features of campaigns. It also includes learning about nonviolent social movements of the past and present to come to a better understanding about how people have worked with major social issues across political, racial, religious, and other lines. And finally, it includes working with social change groups to promote more non-violent approaches to framing the issues being worked with. For example, I remember walking away from Anti-War protests and a few groups working on those issues because so much of it was about hating Bush, Rumsfeld, and the rest. If I became involved with another group working on “Peace Issues”, I’d make efforts to both embody non-violence myself, and also help shift the tide away from wanting to destroy or demonize another group of people.
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