Even the most casually observant American, especially one who spends any non-negligible amount of time on the internet, realizes that there are a lot of nutty people in this country. Everyone has one neighbor they make a point of avoiding. Everyone has one co-worker who is a plausible candidate for an office/factory/whatever killing spree. Everyone sees anonymous comments scattered about the internet that leave little doubt that there are people out there who are…out there in more ways than one.
Given the number of nuts we know to be out there, we are remarkably tolerant of the kind of political dialogue that A) stokes the paranoia of people who are already nuts and B) strongly encourages people who could otherwise be normal and sane to adopt the attitudes, beliefs, and thought patterns of someone who is nuts. The average gun- and silver-hoarding militiaman is, by and large, a sane person capable of leading a normal life who instead withdraws into a world of conspiratorial thoughts, paranoid reasoning, and dangerous beliefs. The average 9/11 Was an Inside Job idiot is another example. These people are not born, they are created. They have and will always exist. The question is why America seems to have so goddamn many of them.
Part of the answer lies in our values and laws. People have the freedom to disseminate any information (factual or otherwise) or opinion they choose. That is something that should never change. The real issue, then, is why we are so socially tolerant of behavior and belief systems that are so aberrant. Herein lies the problem. In some ways American society is stunningly judgmental; in others we are too hesitant to judge. This, I believe, is the partisan political component of Saturday's events in Arizona, because the mainstream Republican Party has fallen particularly short on this issue (although all of us share blame to some extent).
There is a very simple, useful question that we do not often enough ask in the United States, especially where politics are concerned. The GOP, in the last several years, has avoided it altogether. We need to make a concerted effort to stop excusing or encouraging insane behavior and ideas with one question: "What in the hell is wrong with you?"
No one asks that anymore, which is odd given how often the need to do so arises.
When someone shows up at a presidential event with a semiautomatic rifle over his shoulder, conservatives rush to justify it. He has a permit! It's a 2nd Amendment right! Guns don't kill people, people do! Nobody is willing to grab the guy and ask, "You brought an AR-15 to an event where the President of the United States is appearing in public? What the fuck is wrong with you?"
When a Republican candidate suggests "Second Amendment remedies" to the "problem" of having Democrats in elected office, the Republican primary voters of her state reward her with the nomination for the Senate. They do not stop and ask, "What in the hell is wrong with this person?"
When radio and TV pundits tell a country already overpopulated with potentially violent, armed nutcases that Obama is just like Hitler and Stalin and One World Government is on the way and the Federal government is coming to confiscate your guns and so on and so forth, Republicans say "Wow, look at his ratings! I gotta get me on that show!" They do not pause and ask the media personality, "What in the hell is wrong with you?"
When the Republican nominee for Vice-President distributes an advertisement with 20 Democratic members of Congress in rifle crosshairs and constantly uses what she innocently calls "hunting imagery" like "locked and loaded" to "take down" the opposition, right wingers trip over themselves to explain away her behavior as harmless. None of them look at their own movement and ask, "My God, what in the hell is wrong with some of you?"
When someone shows up at a Tea Party rally with a sign that says "We came unarmed [this time]", his fellow protesters think it's so cute that it becomes a popular catchphrase and t-shirt slogan. They don't say, "Put that down, you imbecile. What's wrong with you?"
When a Republican media darling Congresswoman says "I want people in Minnesota armed and dangerous on this issue of the energy tax because we need to fight back. Thomas Jefferson told us 'having a revolution every now and then is a good thing,' and the people — we the people — are going to have to fight back hard if we're not going to lose our country", far too few people in the party are willing to ask her, "Michelle, what in the hell is wrong with you?" and her district returns her to Washington repeatedly.
When a young man devolves into incomprehensibility and obvious mental imbalance right out in public for everyone to see, he is much more likely to find a community of people with similar beliefs who will encourage him rather than a shocked society that asks, "Dude, what the hell are you talking about? You need help."
I've called out the GOP here because violent, overblown, apocalyptic, and, most importantly, false rhetoric is a much bigger problem on the right. We are all afraid to say that and they squeal like teakettles if anyone even suggests it. If your first reaction is that "both sides" share equal blame, listen to or read some Coulter, Savage, Limbaugh, Beck, et al and ask yourself who you think you are kidding. Read The Eliminationists and get back to us with some equivalent examples of "leftists" trafficking in similar rhetoric.
The point is that this is yet another opportunity for our society to reject the prosaic "just a bad apple" theory of why violence like this happens. We can say: Yes, there are always going to be nutjobs out there…so in what way is it remotely responsible for the media, party leaders, and elected officials to fan the flames with violent, paranoid rhetoric? Why is there so much rationalization and so little condemnation when we hear and see this kind of behavior? Because everyone is Entitled to Their Opinion, no matter how insane it may be. While that is true in the legal sense, it is not absolutely true. We need people in general, and Republicans in particular, to take a more active role in condemning this kind of rhetoric – before something terrible happens, not when the body count starts rising.
I've offered just a few examples here of the kind of words and actions that are likely to push otherwise normal people toward skewed ways of seeing their fellow Americans and to push people who are already borderline nuts over the edge. When you encounter this stuff, how do you react? Do you justify, condone, rationalize, and excuse? Or do you state in no uncertain terms that balanced people in a civilized society consider such behavior unacceptable?