Any consmer of detective stories knows well that multiple blows, stabs or shots indicate a crime of rage and passion. Twenty-seven bullets scream both. And that’s exactly what befell Punjab Governor Salman Taseer at the hand of his 26-year-old bodyguard Malik Mumtaz Qadri. Mr. Qadri, seen to have been acting in God’s name, is being hailed as a hero by many throughout Pakistan. Mr. Taseer, as noted in a Times Op-ed by his Newsweek reporter son Shehrbano, believed in the secular vision of Pakistan’s founder, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, something that runs contrary to what’s become a prevailing view where religious extremists are gaining strength by they day. Taseer was considered a moderate in immoderate times, a man obviously ignorant of that singular and only truth claimed by religious zealots.
That was how I began drafting this post a few days ago. It’s a mark of the times that news closer to home has overtaken me and us, though in my view not totally unrelated news.
We don’t yet know for sure what drove Jared Lee Loughner to fire twenty (or so) bullets into Representative Gabrielle Giffords and thirteen other innocent people. Early reports suggest a disturbed young man. Perhaps so, but those multiple bullets, much like the ones coming from Mr. Qadri’s gun, express rage. It’s a kind of nurtured social rage that has, like the spreading extremism in Pakistan and elsewhere, become pervasive across America. As Sheriff Clarence W. Dupnik put it, …the vitriol that comes out of certain mouths about tearing down the government. The anger, the hatred, the bigotry that goes on in this country is getting to be outrageous. And unfortunately, Arizona I think has become sort of the capital. We have become the mecca for prejudice and bigotry. Sadly, Dupnik claims too much for his state — would that it were the sole mecca.
The shooting of Ms. Giffords and the others plays into a narrative that transcends her or any other Congressional district. To be sure, Arizona with its now notorious immigration law is fertile ground for rhetoric taken to the next and fatal step. But this is hardly the first time public figures or simply those doing what they thought right were victims of an assassin’s bullet. We have the distinction of losing more heads of state and high profile candidates to the gun than most countries. In light of that violence, what’s remarkable and truly unnerving is that protecting the Second Amendment is not merely the number one issue for many Americans but that the current Supreme Court has vastly broadened not constrained the right to bear arms. Ironically, Representative Giffords has been one of its vocal supporters. Forget the rightist slogans about people; guns do kill — Presidents, Judges, Obstetricians, Rock Stars and, yes, innocent 9 year olds.
As to people, let’s consider what I earlier called nurtured rage. To be sure many of the killings we’ve seen were the work of unbalanced people whose own demons drove them more than any substantive ideology – Mark Chapman for example. But even the clinically disturbed don’t live in a vacuum and the atmosphere of the United States in 2011 is heavy with hate and over-the-top rhetoric. The Foxites and Talk Radio crowd are among the usual suspects, but so are politicians like Sarah Palin who put Democratic officeholders (including Giffords) in her graphic gun sights during the fall campaign. Like the extreme zealot who killed Taseer and his religious cheer leaders who hailed it, they too claim to possess the truth, disdaining all who disagree. To get their way, these political zealots will go to any length including fudging or fabricating the truth to work up the crowd — Obama’s healthcare equals death panels and is a job killer. Call it free speech, but when does it become what Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. suggested was falsely shouting fire in a theater and causing a panic? Any means, which seems to be guiding light of the day, just doesn’t pass the smell test. We have gone too far or, perhaps more accurately, too far again.
It’s unlikely that the murder in Pakistan will have much impact on that country’s future direction, especially since a large percentage of the population thought it just. No American, including those whose kindling contributed meaningfully to the fire, is justifying Arizona’s black day. No hero’s receptions for Jared Lee Loughner can be expected here. In the days to come, his mental condition (like that of the boys from Columbine) may dominate the headlines and offer cover for the fire shouters. The act of a single demented individual will be broadcast throughout the land. Many will find that a relief, not merely those who might be blamed for leveraging unrest for their own purposes, but average Americans, those onlookers who continue to occupy the sidelines in silence. They hope all of this ugliness will just go away, so that we can get back to reality – the real world of Sarah in Alaska, Survivor and video games, the important things.
I for one hope that isn’t the case, but mine is a dream. President Barack Obama, it’s time for another Philadelphia speech, urgent time.