NEW YORK - There are no eye sockets big enough for the eye-rolling I want to do when I hear American politicians express shock at political violence like last week’s domestic terror trifecta: a racist white man murdered two blacks at a Kentucky grocery store, a white right-winger stands accused of mailing more than a dozen pipe bombs to Democratic politicians and celebrities, and a white anti-Semite allegedly gunned down 11 people at a Pittsburgh synagogue.
There’s plenty of blame to go around.
The assault weapons ban expired in 2004 and Congress failed to renew it; 8 million AR-15 semiautomatic rifles and related models are now in American homes. Mass shootings aren’t occurring more frequently but when they do, body counts are higher.
In 1975 the Supreme Court ruled that a state could no longer forcibly commit the mentally ill to institutions unless they were dangerous. It was a good decision; I remember with horror my Ohio neighbor who had his wife dragged away so he could move in with his girlfriend. Unfortunately it set the stage for the Reagan administration’s systemic deinstitutionalization policy. During the first half of the 1980s mental hospitals were closed and patients were dumped on the streets. The homeless population exploded. Under the old regime, obviously deranged people like James Holmes (the carrot-haired mass shooter at the movie theater in Aurora, Colorado), Adam Lanza (Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut) and Cesar Sayoc (the homeless man arrested for last week’s mail bombs) would probably have been locked up before they could hurt anyone.
This time, the post-mayhem political classes blame U.S. President Donald Trump. He’s bigoted and loudly legitimizes far-right extremism. Did his noxious rhetoric inspire these three right-wing bigots? I think it’s more complicated: Trump can convince a reasonable person to turn racist. But it’s a bigger jump to turn a racist into a killer. That has more to do with insanity.
Tone, morale, what’s acceptable versus what’s unacceptable: social norms come from the top and trickle down to us peasants. Trump’s rhetoric is toxic.
But the message that violence is effective and acceptable didn’t begin with Trump. And it’s hardly unique to his presidency.
To paraphrase the old Palmolive commercial: Violence? You’re soaking in it! And no one is guiltier of our culture of violence than the countless politicians who say stuff like this:
“Threats or acts of political violence have no place in the United States of America.” — Trump, 10/24/18. Untrue. Five days earlier, Trump praised (“he’s my kind of — he’s my guy”) a psychotic Montana congressman who assaulted a reporter, breaking his glasses.
“There’s no room for violence [in politics].” — U.S. President Barack Obama, 6/3/16. Yet every week Obama worked down a “kill list” of victims targeted for drone assassination because they opposed the dictatorial governments of corrupt U.S. allies. And he bragged about the political assassination of Osama bin Laden rather than putting him on trial, as the law requires.
Textbooks teach us, without irony or criticism, about Manifest Destiny — the assumption that Americans have been entitled from Day One to whatever land they wanted to steal and to kill anyone who tried to stop them. Historians write approvingly of the Monroe Doctrine, the insane-if-you-think-about-it claim that every country in the Western hemisphere enjoys only as much sovereignty as we feel like granting them.
Implicit throughout America’s foreign adventurism is that the U.S. invading and occupying and raiding other nations is normal and free of consequence, whereas the rare occasions when other nations attack the U.S. (War of 1812, Pearl Harbor, 9/11) are outrageous and intolerable and call for ferocious retribution.
After childhood the job of brainwashing otherwise sane adults into the systemic normalization of state violence falls to our political leaders and their mouthpieces in the media.
Even the best politicians do it. It’s a system. When you live in a system, you soak in it.
“In this country we battle with words and ideas, not fists and bombs,” Bernie Sanders tweeted in response to the mail bombs. What a lie.
The Obama administration’s Department of Homeland Security used policemen’s fists and flash grenades and pepper bombs to rout dozens of Occupy Wall Street movement encampments in 2011.
The mayor of Philadelphia ordered that police drop a bomb on a row house in a quiet neighborhood in 1985. The botched effort to execute arrest warrants on an anarcho-primitivist group called MOVE killed 11 people and burned down three city blocks, destroying 65 buildings. Police shot at those trying to escape. Naturally, no city official was ever charged with wrongdoing. Cops kill a thousand Americans every year.
Every president deploys violence on a vast scale. They’re cavalier about it. They revel in their crimes because they think bragging about committing mass murder makes them look “tough.” How on Earth can they act surprised when ordinary citizens follow their example?
After watching Islamist rebels torture deposed Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi and sodomize him with a bayonet, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton chuckled gleefully about America’s role in his gruesome death (a U.S. drone blew up the dictator’s convoy): “We came, we saw, he died.” How macho.
At the 2010 White House Correspondents Dinner, Obama joked about his policy of assassinating brown-skinned Middle Easterners willy-nilly: “The Jonas Brothers are here; they’re out there somewhere. Sasha and Malia are huge fans. But boys, don’t get any ideas. I have two words for you: Predator drones. You will never see it coming. You think I’m joking.”
Imagine the president of France or Germany or Canada or Russia saying something that insensitive, tasteless and crass. You can’t. They wouldn’t.
“It’s already hard enough to convince Muslims that the U.S. isn’t indifferent to civilian casualties without having the president joke about it,” commented Adam Serwer of the American Prospect. Assuming Muslims are dumb enough to be convinced.
When political leaders in other countries discuss their decisions to commit violence, there’s often a “more in sorrow than in anger” tone to their statements. Don’t want to, can’t help it, regrettable — just don’t have a choice.
American presidents are different. They swagger like John Wayne. The crazies who shoot up schools and synagogues sound a lot like them. “Screw your optics, I’m going in,” accused Pittsburgh temple shooter Robert Bowers posted to social media hours before the incident. “Hey mom. Gotta go,” Dylan Thomas said on video the day before he and Eric Harris killed 20 people at Columbine High School. “Well, Mr. Big Brother IRS man, let’s try something different; take my pound of flesh and sleep well,” wrote Andrew Stack before he flew his plane into an IRS office in Austin in 2010.
There is, of course, a difference between killer elites and killer proles. The elites kill more people.
Ted Rall is a political cartoonist, columnist and graphic novelist