On political assassination

January 10, 2011

I knew the staffer, Gabe Zimmerman, who died Saturday in the Giffords assassination attempt. Not as a friend, just on a professional level. But it still made me look at the shooting and its aftermath in a different light. Like so many Hill staffers, he was smart, hard-working, earnest, and anonymous.

I actually felt consciously less safe walking around Capitol Hill today.  I really wasn’t expecting that.

One reason — aside from the obvious — that congressional political assassinations are so heart-wrenching (and so rare) is that they serve virtually no plausible political purpose. That is, to say, there’s simply no rational political explanation for the motives. You cannot change a legislature by assassinating a single legislator; heck, you cannot effect any substantial political change by assassinating ten percent of a legislature. That’s one of the often-overlooked geniuses of the institution, the political safety and stability of distributed power. And thus, the global history of assassination is littered with Kings and Dictators and Rulers and Presidents and Presidential candidates and  leaders of social movements. But not legislators.

And so it bothers me that we even need to have a debate over the political motivations of Giffords’ assassin. Of course he’s insane (in the non-clinical sense) if he’s a political assassin; his methods are utterly irrational if he is seeking political ends.

But that’s not what I find most strange in all of this. That title would go to the structure of the political debate currently going on over the role of political rhetoric in the assassination attempt. I’m going to make four statements, all of which I believe are unarguably true, but which I have not seen a single writer/blogger/pundit/commentator accept in aggregate.

(1) The jargon of politics, especially electoral politics, is the language of war. For Christ’s sake, they’re called campaigns.  Think of all of the words that are so common in politics that you don’t even realize you are saying them: target, attack, defending, battleground, offensive, etc. I mean, not only is target the main word used to describe what the DCCC and NRCC do, it’s pretty much the only word for what they do, besides raising money for warchests. And thus the endless back-and-forth on the Internet the last few days digging through who said what over the last 25 years is both boring and ultimately unsurprising. Sarah Palin put out a target map of districts! The President said “if they bring a knife to the fight, we’ll bring a gun!”

Go ahead and google around a bit if it meets your partisan needs; you’ll find effigies of Presidents, target maps of candidates, elected officials joking about assassinations, guns pointed at cut-outs of candidates, and all the violent rhetoric you can handle, all emanating from organized campaign organs. But only a fool believes it’s anything but metaphorical in intent. And anyone digging up this sort of nonsense to prove a point, as the saying goes, probably doesn’t care a whole lot about the truth.

(2) Violent political rhetoric probably has a marginal effect on political violence, even across ideology. Still, it’s naive to think that the war-like jargon of politics has no marginal effect on how people think about politicians, and on the propensity of people to engage in actual violence in politics. But it’s clearly a marginal effect, and probably not in the top 10most influential  independent variables in a multi-variate regression. For the kind of rare-event model we’re talking about, it’s just too broad; If it were the key explanatory variable, there’d be gunfire flying left and right. That’s common sense.

What’s less common, I think, is the notion that the rhetoric need not match the kind of violence it has a marginal effect in inciting. Take Dallas, 1963 as an example. It’s pretty well agreed that (a) there was a hostile, conservative anti-Kennedy atmosphere that had developed in much of the South and particularly in Dallas in the wake of desegregation, the school prayer decision, and other issues, filled with violent rhetoric and imagery; and (b) Kennedy was assassinated by a left-wing psuedo-communist who was upset over Cuba policy. In the past few days, left-leaning commentators have enjoyed reminding us of point A, while right-leaning commentators have consistently reminded us of point B. But I think it’s more than clear that point A and point B are not mutually exclusive, but instead plausibly related, and  it’s easy to see how the increased political rhetoric of violence in the civil rights era south could easily have had a marginal effect on LHO’s decision to aim a rifle at the President.

(3) The assassination attempt on Giffords is unlikely to have been directly related to the 2010 election, or the Tea Party, or contemporary conservative politics in general. I would think there’d be some evidence of this by now if it were the case. But there isn’t.  And it’s not like we’re lacking evidence in this case; there’s lots of evidence toward other motivations: anti-government writings of the suspect, evidence of paranoid mental problems, fixations on government conspiracy theories. But a shred of interest in health care or the unemployment numbers or immigration or the stimulus or increasing the debt ceiling? None there.

I did think it was enlightening to see how partisans reacted to the suspects’ favorite book list. Aha! He listed the Communist Manifesto! Clearly he wasn’t a right-winger. Aha! He listed Animal Farm and Brave New World! Clearly he was an anti-government cynic. Aha! He listed Mein Kampf! Clearly he was a Nazi! Unfortunately, no one seemed to get to the bottom of the list. Aha! He listed Farenheit 451 Clearly he was an anti-censorship librarian! Aha! He listed The Wizard of Oz! Clearly he was a free-silver Bryanite!

(4) The rhetoric of the 2010 election could very well have had a marginal effect on the assassination attempt. I don’t think it’s even remotely controversial to correlate political assassination with national political stress. Even a cursory glance across American history seems to lend some evidence of a basic coinciding of the two. And it makes sense that times of high partisanship will increase the numbers of people on the fringes who are willing to commit such acts. And as we established above, the marginal effect need not correlate with the ideology of inflamed rhetoric. So even if we were to stipulate to the idea that the 2010 election was a high-point of right-wing violent rhetoric, it’s not clear to me that we could place any weight on the idea that a subsequent assassination would be a right-wing one, even if we acknowledge that said assassination was influenced by said election. And in reality, it’s much murkier than that. The roots of the current partisan combat are much deeper than the last two years.

(5) The Giffords assassination is not proof of the need for any changes to American politics. Assassination in American politics is, thankfully, a rare event. But that fact underscores the problem with trying to draw consequential lessons from it. Are American politicians any less safe today than they were last week? Maybe, given that things like assassination are contagious. But in a practical sense, the answer is no. It’s still far, far more dangerous to get in a car and drive to the grocery store than it is to hold federal elective office. It’s hard to resist the impulse to do something in the wake of these sorts of things, but this is a tragedy, not a political crisis. There’s time to think it through, and time to consider doing nothing.

Would it be worth spending tens of millions to further protect Members in their districts? That depends on your axiomatic normative thinking about democracy and taxation levels, but I think the burden of proof would definitely be on those seeking greater protection.  And as for the rhetoric of politics? That’s not changing, and most attempts to do so will be cures worse than the disease. I hope there’s never another congressional assassination. But if doing nothing in the wake of the Giffords’ attempt means there might be one every century, that’s probably a security risk we just need to internalize as a nation.

So yes, that’s what I think. Violent rhetoric is woven into American politics; it probably has a marginal effect on political violence; I find it silly to think the 2010 election had a direct effect on the Giffords’ assassination attempt; but the rhetoric of the election very well could have had a marginal effect; still, this is not something that calls for any structural response by anyone.

What is so controversial about that? Why won’t anyone acknowledge that this is possibly the case?


One Response to On political assassination

  1. LD on January 10, 2011 at 4:44 pm

    Matt I totally agree with your assessment.

    I would also make the comment that anyone who thinks this will change political rhetoric is sorely mistaken. If 9/11 could be politicized by both sides, then this surely will as well.

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