Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Let's Assume, Loughner Edition

I have no doubt that cops, prosecutors, judges and juries alike tend to identify with and cut slack to drivers who kill. Depending on your level of religiosity, you might view that as the there but for the grace of God or there but for luck go I.

All too often it is the police report that reads "unfortunate but unavoidable accident." For the family of the corpse, it's no accident running someone down or smashing your vehicle into theirs. From the forgiving nature of driving laws to juries giving an empathetic pass to a slayer, far too often what would be second degree murder with any other weapon brings light or no punishment with a 3000 pound SUV.

The number of Americans who murder or maim by vehicle has been steadily going down since a high in 1979. Much of that seems due primarily to driving more slowly and mostly to better engineered vehicle safety systems.

The latest annual rate, from 2009, is still an astonishing 33,808 Americans dead from motor vehicles. This is over twice the rate of intentional violent murders by other means — 15,241 for 2009.

In that context, Jared Loughner's murder of six people and attempted murder of another 14 he shot may seem like more Americans doing what American's do.

Americans you may ask incredulously? Yes, we in the United States are far highest among our peer group of industrialized Western nations. Per capita, we sit in the middle of all nations, but those with higher rates are in poor, crime ridden, Third World countries. Our European and Canadian counterparts are far, far below us. Down there, even our similar sized Australia with its own history of a wild west background has less than one-fourth the per capita murder rate.

Yet, we as a nation, as our mass media, as our social networks, as our politicians, look at Loughner's blood and guts and brains rampage to wonder how this might happen. Surprisingly, we feign that murders, particularly with guns are rare here.

Disgustingly, far too many of us then switched on the defenses. It wasn't my side or anything my folk said or did. It wasn't the easily availability of guns, high-capacity bullet clips, and ammunition. Out of all that comes one of two conclusions, either it was the other side politically who tipped this guy over, or he was simply crazy and there is nothing that could have been done to prevent it.

Oddly and given the opportunity after the murders, left-leaning pols and pundits did little blaming of the right. Even when some did ask what effect years of objectifying slander and calls for armed insurrection might have had on Loughner and others, the reaction from the most strident of the right wingers was fierce. The Limbaugh/Palin/Malkin sorts were quick to find little toothpicks of evidence of harsh leftist dialog to claim absurdly that one side has been as bad as another.

Mirabile dicu! A reassuring number of pols and media types alike seem willing to consider that tough talk may be harmful. Even as they defensively disavow any possible link to action by murderous anti-abortionist or Loughner types, they seem to have gotten that they could be linked to such lingo when there are attacks and deaths.

The gustiest of the right-wing blowhards are not likely to join in by being aware of what they might incite. They appear to have too much invested in dehumanizing those who disagree with them and in using inflammatory lies to get audience and advertising.

Yet even in that pathetic and risible Palin appearance on Hannity, she paid lip service to civility. That much had sunk in, even if she proceeded to lie and blame per usual. If polls numbers for the likes of her and audience share for the Fox folk and their ilk dip enough, they might even pull in a few talons.

Consider for a moment, what if it turns out that Loughner is just a mental and emotional jumble with no way to understand why he shot so many? Then consider, what if his prosecution uncovers documents and oral testimony from him and others that make a convincing causal relationship to right-wing talk and his actions?

Certainly the script that the extreme wingers and many more moderate righties have followed tightly is the former. Loughner was a crazed loner who acted out dictates of his inner demons and his impulses. That's sweet and neat for them, letting them say anyone who even hints there might be a link between calls for revolution and targeting lefties are irrational bigots.

Unfortunately for them, what the vast majorities of lefties and seemingly nearly all moderates have been asking does not start and stop with Loughner. Assuming no link from winger speech to his actions, that would clear violent calls only in his case. The larger issue of urging the public to take out, target and eliminate Democrats and the whole U.S. government remains.

If those whose words are most suspect can't deal with the idea that they may catalyze violence, the bulk of us appear ready to march on without them. That's when those extremists will find themselves talking diminishing audiences and eventually only to themselves.

In the latter case, what if Lougner left records or makes makes a confession that he was inspired by this or that winger pundit? That could have several obvious effects.

First, many of the strident right-wing talkers, media and pol alike, could call freak occurrence — oh, it was only this person Lougner listened to, or oh, it was this one crazy guy, while the rest of the country can listen to us and not flip out. Many of us on the left on the other hand, might find ourselves butting up against First Amendment rights. Six deaths and 14 maimings directly caused by hate speech, therefore...?

So far, the FBI has been pretty quiet. Experience would suggest Loughner was in fact deranged. Then again, for almost any murder, would it be fair to say such inhumane and inhuman act shows insanity?

We humans so love to have people or processes to blame when something terrible happens. We may not get that with the Loughner case. Yet even if we conclude that he was just too crazed to know why he shot all those people, a good portion of the country will be evaluating the worth and impacts of loose violent talk.

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