SYNDICATED COLUMN: Who’s to Blame for Political Violence? The Terror Starts at the Top, Trickles Down

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There are no eye sockets big enough for the eye-rolling I want to do when I hear American politicians express shock at political violence like the last week’s domestic terror trifecta: a racist white man murdered two blacks at a Kentucky grocery store, a white right-winger stands accused of mailing more than a dozen pipe bombs to Democratic politicians and celebrities, and a white anti-Semite allegedly gunned down 11 people at a Pittsburgh synagogue.

There’s plenty of blame to go around.

The assault weapons ban expired in 2004 and Congress failed to renew it; eight million AR-15 semiautomatic rifles and related models are now in American homes. Mass shootings aren’t occurring more frequently but when they do, body counts are higher.

In 1975 the Supreme Court ruled that a state could no longer forcibly commit the mentally ill to institutions unless they were dangerous. It was a good decision; I remember with horror my Ohio neighbor who had his wife dragged away so he could move in with his girlfriend. Unfortunately it set the stage for the Reagan Administration’s systemic deinstitutionalization policy. During the first half of the 1980s mental hospitals were closed and patients were dumped on the streets. The homeless population exploded. Under the old regime, obviously deranged people like James Holmes (the carrot-haired mass shooter at the movie theater in Aurora, Colorado), Adam Lanza (Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut) and Cesar Sayoc (the homeless man arrested for last week’s mail bombs) would probably have been locked up before they could hurt anyone.

This time, the post-mayhem political classes blame Donald Trump. He’s bigoted and loudly legitimizes far-right extremism. Did his noxious rhetoric inspire these three right-wing bigots? I think it’s more complicated: Trump can convince a reasonable person to turn racist. But it’s a bigger jump to turn a racist into a killer. That has more to do with insanity.

Tone, morale, what’s acceptable vs. what’s unacceptable: social norms come from the top and trickle down to us peasants. Trump’s rhetoric is toxic.

But the message that violence is effective and acceptable didn’t begin with Trump. And it’s hardly unique to his presidency.

To paraphrase the old Palmolive commercial: Violence? You’re soaking in it! And no one is guiltier of our culture of violence than the countless politicians who say stuff like this:

“Threats or acts of political violence have no place in the United States of America.” —Trump, 10/24/18. Untrue. Five days earlier, Trump praised (“he’s my kind of — he’s my guy”) a psychotic Montana congressman who assaulted a reporter, breaking his glasses.

“There’s no room for violence [in politics].” —Barack Obama, 6/3/16. Yet every week as president Obama worked down a “kill list” of victims targeted for drone assassination because they opposed the dictatorial governments of corrupt U.S. allies. And he bragged about the political assassination of Osama bin Laden rather than putting him on trial, as the law requires.

Textbooks teach us, without irony or criticism, about Manifest Destiny—the assumption that Americans have been entitled from Day One to whatever land they wanted to steal and to kill anyone who tried to stop them. Historians write approvingly of the Monroe Doctrine, the insane-if-you-think-about-it claim that every country in the Western hemisphere enjoys only as much sovereignty as we feel like granting them. Implicit throughout America’s foreign adventurism is that the U.S. invading and occupying and raiding other nations is normal and free of consequence, whereas the rare occasions when other nations attack the U.S. (War of 1812, Pearl Harbor, 9/11) are outrageous and intolerable and call for ferocious retribution.

After childhood the job of brainwashing otherwise sane adults into the systemic normalization of state violence falls to our political leaders and their mouthpieces in the media.

Even the best politicians do it. It’s a system. When you live in a system, you soak in it.

“In this country we battle with words and ideas, not fists and bombs,” Bernie Sanders tweeted in response to the mail bombs. What a lie.

The Obama Administration’s Department of Homeland Security used policemen’s fists and flash grenades and pepper bombs to rout dozens of Occupy Wall Street movement encampments in 2011.

The mayor of Philadelphia ordered that police drop a bomb on a row house in a quiet neighborhood in 1985. The botched effort to execute arrest warrants on an anarcho-primitivist group called MOVE killed 11 people and burned down three city blocks, destroying 65 buildings. Police shot at those trying to escape. Naturally, no city official was ever charged with wrongdoing.

Cops kill a thousand Americans every year.

Every president deploys violence on a vast scale. They’re cavalier about it. They revel in their crimes because they think bragging about committing mass murder makes them look “tough.”

How on earth can they act surprised when ordinary citizens follow their example?

After watching Islamist rebels torture deposed Libyan leader Moammar Ghaddafi and sodomize him with a bayonet, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton chuckled gleefully about America’s role in his gruesome death (a U.S. drone blew up the dictator’s convoy): “We came, we saw, he died.”

How macho.

At the 2010 White House Correspondents Dinner Obama joked about his policy of assassinating brown-skinned Middle Easterners willy-nilly: “The Jonas Brothers are here; they’re out there somewhere. Sasha and Malia are huge fans. But boys, don’t get any ideas. I have two words for you: Predator drones. You will never see it coming. You think I’m joking.”

Imagine the president of France or Germany or Canada or Russia saying something that insensitive, tasteless and crass. You can’t. They wouldn’t.

“It’s already hard enough to convince Muslims that the U.S. isn’t indifferent to civilian casualties without having the president joke about it,” commented Adam Serwer of the American Prospect. Assuming Muslims are dumb enough to be convinced.

When political leaders in other countries discuss their decisions to commit violence, there’s often a “more in sorrow than in anger” tone to their statements. Don’t want to, can’t help it, regrettable—just don’t have a choice.

American presidents are different. They swagger like John Wayne.

The crazies who shoot up schools and synagogues sound a lot like them.

“Screw your optics, I’m going in,” accused Pittsburgh temple shooter Robert Bowers posted to social media hours before the incident.

“Hey mom. Gotta go,” Dylan Klebold said on video the day before he and Eric Harris killed 20 people at Columbine High School.

“Well, Mr. Big Brother IRS man, let’s try something different; take my pound of flesh and sleep well,” wrote Andrew Stack before he flew his plane into an IRS office in Austin in 2010.

There is, of course, a difference between killer elites and killer proles. The elites kill more people.

(Ted Rall (Twitter: @tedrall), the political cartoonist, columnist and graphic novelist, is the author of “Francis: The People’s Pope.” You can support Ted’s hard-hitting political cartoons and columns and see his work first by sponsoring his work on Patreon.

13 thoughts on “SYNDICATED COLUMN: Who’s to Blame for Political Violence? The Terror Starts at the Top, Trickles Down

  1. Doubleplusgood column.

    Violence does start at the top and trickle down – but it also starts at the bottom of the cesspit and oozes up. Humans were violent animals long before they were civilized beings. If they truly want the benefits of civilization, they’ll need to learn to control their baser instincts.

    … and as I re-read this comment I’m struck by how trite it is, how many times others have said the same things, and why the fuck do we have to keep repeating that which should be obvious in the first place?

    I’ll stop killing you just as soon as you stop killing me. You go first.

    • “Why the fuck do we have to keep repeating that which should be obvious in the first place?”

      Why the fuck does the counter-narrative about the obvious crimes against humanity have to be repeated a hundred times as loud, and a hundred times as often, than that which should be obvious in the first place?

      Listen to the chants of “USA! USA!” shout down the “No More War!” chants at the Hillary nominating convention.

      It’s chilling.

  2. One Palmolive point. Look at how often and to what degree American culture treats the military as above reproach at the lower levels. Sure, we screw them over when they come back, but no one criticizes them for brutalizing people overseas. No one gives pacifists a free trip through college or preferential, protected status during hiring. If I were a vet, I would get all manner of benefits not granted to those unwilling to just murder on command. But all the corn-fed heroes in their late teens and early teens? How dare you call them murderers?! They’re good boys.

    No. Some of them are dupes. Some are sadists. But stop telling me about how they aren’t to blame somehow or how even hinted at criticism is not permissable.

    Want to kill someone? Really want the thrill of ending a life? Get shipped out to somewhere in the Middle East where the U.S. has a military presence to protect our economic interests. You might even be one of those lucky few who climax during the commission of a murder. The best part? Once you kill one time, you never have to worry. You’ve shown the gang your loyalty. They will probably find other places for you to do brutal things. Maybe a police force somewhere.

    As long as you can keep going along with it, you’ll probably come out ahead.

  3. I went to 4H summer camp in the early sixties and was handed a .22 rifle for a fun time at the rifle range.

    No worries.

    Domestic mass murders just weren’t on the menu for kids in their early teens back in those days.

    Many people my age didn’t suspect that the US government was capable of indiscriminate murder for funsies back then. We didn’t even know what we believed back then until what we thought we believed would be tested.

    There were a lot of kids at that camp who, a short 2 or 3 years later, would come to believe that the best way to rescue the victimized Vietnamese from the communists was to kill them. A friend of mine wrote a letter home to those of us not yet drafted describing how a rice farmer’s popping skull looked in his sniper scope.

    But things have changed. Not in the countries we “help”, but at home.

    But don’t worry; the government is looking out for us. A new pill is in the works that will prevent the formation of long term memories after the commission of morally repugnant acts.

    Hey, all you froggies out there: the water’s already boiling.

  4. “Why the fuck do we have to keep repeating that which should be obvious in the first place?”

    Why the fuck does the counter-narrative about the obvious crimes against humanity have to be repeated a hundred times as loud, and a hundred times as often, than that which should be obvious in the first place?

    Listen to the chants of “USA! USA!” shout down the “No More War!” chants at the Hillary nominating convention.

    It’s chilling.

  5. Where Jesus went wrong…

    What he said: “Peace, love, and happiness.”

    What he should have said: “Peace, love, and happiness, or the sword.”

    Without the sword you’ve got nothing.

    The sword rules the world.

    What matters is the nature of the man who holds it.

    • He said to them, “But now if you have a purse, take it, and also a bag; and if you don’t have a sword, sell your cloak and buy one.
      —Luke 22:36

      Christianity has a long and bloody history.

      • Thanks Glenn. It’s a fair response. I was expecting a lot worse.

        I didn’t know he said that. Still, I don’t think the sword was a prominent part of his message. Was it? Certainly not prominent enough to save his own life. And with him gone, the violence carried out in the name of Christianity ended up being about kings and slaves and money, didn’t it?

        Had Jesus said, “Follow me and let’s build the communist utopia, whether they want it or not!” we might have built it by now.

        I don’t know. Could be wrong. Trying to get at root causes re: “What went wrong in The West?”

      • @aaronwilliams

        It’s worth reading the entire chapter, rather than picking one verse out of context.

        Jesus was going to his death, he knew that he would be betrayed by Judas and that Peter would deny knowing him three times before the day was out.

        He told his disciples to take swords, they said they had two and he responded that was enough. They never actually used them.

        While it is true that Christianity has a long and bloody history, Yeshua bin Nazareth was a long-haired peacenik, those who promote violence in his name have never understood his teachings. We recently had a rightie claiming that Yeshua would have absolutely killed innocent women and children in My Lai.

        That’s not the way I read his words, and I would like to recommend “The Jefferson Bible” to anyone who says differently.

      • @CrazyH

        I love me a long-haired peacenik, and lord knows, I’m one.

        We’ve been out here for thousands of years, and we’ve been right the whole time, but we seem to be having a problem taking over. It’s frustrating.

  6. There is, of course, a difference between killer elites and killer proles. The elites kill more people.

    Nailed it, Ted. No further comment needed….


  7. Not to intervene in a debate among theologans, but according to Luke’s account,

    49 When they which were about him saw what would follow, they said unto him, Lord, shall we smite with the sword?

    50 And one of them smote the servant of the high priest, and cut off his right ear.

    51 And Jesus answered and said, Suffer ye thus far. And he touched his ear, and healed him.