The new year began when a guaranteed laugh-provoker, olâ Marcus Twain hisownself, had a book of his, the nefarious American masterpiece Huckleberry Finn, bowdlerized and disemboweled, occasioning such bemusedÂ reactions as those of Bob Englehart and John Cole, above. ButÂ on January 8, Twain was blown off the editorial page as a suitable subject for editooning by the hideous Tucson tragedy. Among the earliest reactions came from editoonist Steve Benson, just up the road in Phoenix at the Arizona Republic.
Benson, like Canadian Steve Nease at the right, saw the gunfire as a logical extension of extremist political rhetoric. But as cartoonists heard more about the vicious madness in the Safeway parking lot, they found variant explanations, among them, Sarah the Palin, whose SarahPac had posted a map of the U.S., targeting Democrat candidates for defeat by using the crosshairs of rifle sights.
The Alaskan sportswoman of the year was pretty soon the symbol for rancorous right-wing rhetoric, and Sarah Livingston Palin didnât help matters by taking down the map right away and then issuing a short statement expressing sympathy for the victims of the shooting, which Lalo Alcaraz skewers memorably.
Her defense, an entirely credible one, simply invoked freedom of speech, but as Adam Zyglis ingeniously demonstrates, that hardly suffices. As the liberal enthusiasm for attacking Palin spreadâculminating, rhetorically, in the hilarious exaggerations of Pat Oliphant at the left in our next exhibitâconservative editorial cartooners reacted predictably, going on the attack, Glenn McCoy at the right first among them.
Michael Cavna at the Washington Postâs online Comic Riffs blog saw the developing warfare right away: “In these polarizing times, some cartoonists reacted to the shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords by immediately taking up sides across the political aisle.” And cable tv gasbags joined gleefully in, some immediately blaming the inflammatory rhetoric of the political right as inspiring the skinheaded killer, Jared Loughner, who, it developed, was more crazed than committed politically; others, on the right, struck back vehementlyâso vehemently that Iâm tempted to wonder if they protest too much.
At the conservative Washington Examiner, editoonist Nate Beeler was incensed at those of his brethren who, he believes, willfully misconstrued the facts to turn the tragedy partisan. Cavna quotes him:
“I watched as some of my cartooning compatriots callously ignored the facts and used this tragedy to make political attacks. It might be acceptable to use the facts of an incident like this to make a strong point on politics or policy, but that’s not what happened. These cartoonists shirked their duty to readers. They exploited these nonpolitical murders to create vitriolic partisan cartoons denouncing vitriolic partisanship.
“By every account I’ve read,” Beeler continued, “the gunman, who experts say is likely schizophrenic, acted alone and without a coherent political agenda. By ignoring this fact, these cartoonists exhibited willful blindness and intellectual laziness. As keepers of the public trust, cartoonists should be smarter than that.”
In his cartoons, Beeler put his pen to use in the service of his words, creating a couple of telling images.
Another cartoon, oneÂ by Jeff Danziger, distributed by New York Times Worldwide, particularly incensed Post readers, Cavna said. “In response to the tragedy, Danziger drew a shooter pulling the trigger from within a teapot, metaphorically tying the Arizona crimes to the Tea Party movement.”
But the hardnosed Danziger was unfazed by the criticism. The shooting suspect “wasn’t a member of the Tea Party … ,” he said, “but I think the point still is, the Tea Party’s influence is larger and there’s political pressure to take a violent stance toward big government. It’s that kind of thoughtless approach that affects some nutcase like thisâthis psychopath, this sociopath. In a place like Arizona, where everyone’s gunned up to the nostrils, the Tea Party influence is still there.”
Beeler wasnât pacified. “Now, I’m not a member of the Tea Party,” he said. “I’m a journalist who makes a living drawing his opinions. What that means is I need to be rigorous in my research of all sides of an issue before reaching a conclusionâknee-jerk is the last thing I should be. With this tragedy, we can have a discussion about guns or mental-health services. We can always talk about civility in politics, as I believe that’s a virtue. But trying to pin these six senseless murders on political enemies is a shameful act and a dereliction of duty.”
Ed Stein, whose cartoons are carried by United Feature Syndicate, told Cavna that he’s curious to see how his artistic peers respond as the facts continue to come to the fore. “As far as my colleagues are concerned,” he said, “most of the work I’ve seen is what you’d expect right after an event like this: expressions of horror and sadness. Some cartoonists, however, jumped right into the partisan fray, accusing the left of politicizing a tragedy. Others went right after Sarah Palin and Fox News. I think those were premature at best, and did nothing to calm the polarizing debate. I’ll be interested to see how many of us back off of the partisanship and look for some common ground. … We all want the other guy to search his soul.”
Steinâs eventual cartoon on the subject duplicated the map at SarahPac; by this time, he had presumably been persuaded that there was some truth to the accusations that her armed metaphors were dangerous.
The other map, a bullet-riddle state of Arizona, was the first reaction of the Arizona Daily Starâs liberal David Fitzsimmons. Fitz, a resident of Tucson who lives near the scene of the crime, went to the grocery store parking lot to see for himself what was happening, and he was interviewed by CNN.
“Iâm pretty shaken, frankly,” he said. “This is a very surreal, dream-like experience.” But as a practiced observer of Arizona politics, Fitz wasnât too surprised: “The right in Arizona, and Iâm speaking very broadly, has been stoking the fires of a heated anger and rage successfully in this state. This is a gun-happy state,” he continued when asked to elaborate. “I myself enjoy guns from time to time. Iâm not against gun ownership. But for this state, it has become a fetish. This is an intense gun culture, and the politics of the state are far to the right, rabid right.
“Itâs tough for me because I knew Congresswoman Giffords,” he went on. “She held great promise as a blue-dog democrat. She was very intelligent, articulate and informed congresswoman, who thought a great deal about the future of Arizona. Itâs just heartbreaking for me that such an individual would be struck down. This is very emotional for me,” he finished. “I grew up in Arizona. Iâve spent all my life here, and it has evolved into a state that generates a lot of political heat. Thatâs as kind as Iâll be today.”
Later that day after the interview aired, Fitz was chagrined at the vehemence of his remarks. “Today I have offended many with my emotional, partisan and inappropriate remarks broadcast on CNN regarding the horror of this day,” said he, quoted in his paper. “As Congresswoman Giffords battles for her life, let us join in prayer for her, for the dead and for the injured. Reflecting on the moment, I know my remarks would have disappointed Congresswoman Giffords, a public servant who is admired for her nonpartisan, gracious and intelligent approach to public discourse.”
By this time, however, Fitzsimmons was scarcely alone in fanning the flames of partisan discord.
Many thoughtful commentators are rejecting out-of-hand the idea our media-fueled incendiary political discourse caused the deranged young man in Tucson to rampage. And then there are people like me who remember that inflammatory rhetoric about the “baby killers” who perform abortions deserving a similar fate, followed, before long, by the killing of an abortion doctor. No one seemed to question the cause-and-effect relationship in the abortion murders. So why is the Tucson case different?
For one thing, because some liberal voices are going after the Growly Old Pachyderm, the Tea Baggers, or Sarah Livingston Palin, supporters of these fanatics leap to their defense, shrieking: “No, no, noâitâs not the political discourse that is at fault: itâs just the crazy guy, so we need to refine our mechanisms for finding crazy guys before they shoot someone.”
Loughnerâs photo, plastered all over tv screens for the last week, shows us what a murderous crazy looks like, so all we need to do is call the cops every time we see someone with a similar hairdo and smirk, right?
The impossibility of that assignment is matched by all the other alternatives. The anti-gun folks chime in and demand stricter gun control laws. Well, unlikely: the Second Amendment protects guns and gun owners. And such laws as we have already about prohibiting the sale of firearms to the mentally unbalanced have already proved impractical and therefore unenforceable.
Still, I wonder if weâd offend the founding fathers if we outlawed semi-automatic pistols and rifles, the weapons that are designed solely for the purpose of killing as many people as possible? These arenât sporting weapons, except for those who practice a particularly bizarre kind of sport; and they arenât for hunting either.
I canât help thinking, though, that much of the brouhaha about whether the raucous Right is at fault here, or the insidious Left, misses a somewhat larger point. The Oklahoma City bomber may supply a more accurate model for whatâs awry than Sarah the Palin, Rush Limbaugh, Bill OâReilly, Glenn Beck, Ann Coulter or Keith Olbermann (who, at least, acknowledged that somethingÂ said might haveÂ incited the Tucson violence).
Timothy McVeigh bombed a government building in Oklahoma City in 1955 as an act of revenge against the federal government for its handling of the Waco Siege. Reportedly, he also hoped to inspire a revolt against what he considered to be a tyrannical government. McVeigh was a militia movement sympathizer, and he was undoubtedly surrounded by like-minded people in such an environment, people who, wittingly or not, made him feel they supported him in his criminal inclination. And in fact, he had at least two henchmen from the ranks who joined him in executing his plan.
Most of us seek support from friends and colleagues for whatever we do, and McVeigh, in this, would be no different than any of us. If it was McVeighâs militia environment that nurtured him in his murderous scheme, it canât be so much of a leap to suppose that the toxicity of our political discourse can foster in unbalanced personalities fantasies that can result in “acting out” in extreme ways consistent with the “program” inherent in vitriolic advocacies.
And thatâs not likely to change. Our history is bloody with violence, from the so-called Indian Wars to the gunfight at OK Corral to My Lai to Blackwater. Our language is laced with the metaphors of the battlefield and the prize fight. All of it provides a cultural backdrop that tolerates, if it does not actively encourage, violence as a legitimate course of action.
Would it were otherwise.