Mayhem in Tucson, and the politics of evil

by Rob Tiller

The killing spree by a mentally ill young man in Tucson last week was shocking and sad, as senseless mayhem always is. But there’s something about this attack that’s especially worrisome. The main target (who miraculously survived) was a moderate Democratic congresswoman. A number of right wing pundits have made careers of demonizing such politicians and fanning ignorance into raging anger. Palin, Limbaugh, O’Reilly, Beck and others have persuaded millions that non-right-wingers are not merely misguided, but essentially and utterly evil. It isn’t hard to imagine that their intense, emotional rhetoric would lead unbalanced minds to violent action.

We usually think of political differences as less important than, say, differences in moral values, but lately the two kinds of differences have converged and made it hard to address real social problems. Paul Krugman in the NY Times was insightful and eloquent on this issue.

Krugman points out that the right wing has developed a view of government as opposed to their natural rights. They regard “taxes and regulation as tyrannical impositions on their liberty.” Thus they view health reform (and lots of other government programs) as a moral outrage, and most of what government does as illegitimate. It follows from this that those who believe government has an important role to play in addressing serious social problems are evil enemies.

This is, of course, a radical view, with no more basis in our traditions than in reason. It’s probable that this approach in its strong form is a fringe phenomenon. But the Tucson mayhem brought home that such ideology may still seriously threaten our public life. The sophisticated right-wing PR machine makes unbalanced individuals even more unbalanced, and there will be a certain percentage of these who enjoy shooting assault weapons. Krugman is probably right that no amount of reasonable discussion will persuade the right wingers, and we can’t hope to prevent all mental illness. But Krugman thinks we may be able to agree that it’s wrong to incite violence. That seems little enough to ask.