The immediate response to tragedy ought to be a cautious silence and a quiet search for understanding. Yet when I attended a vigil on Sunday at the US Capitol building, a reporter from WAMU spent a half hour gathering quotes (none of which he used, thankfully) and in the process goaded a few vocal participants into making absurdly uninformed pronouncements about causation and culpability. So instead of a quiet search for understanding, we listened to a few men rant. Obviously, that’s not what vigils are supposed to do, but the reporter didn’t seem to care that his microphone was disruptive.
So here’s what I’ve been thinking about:
First, and most importantly, this is a terrible tragedy. Six people died, twelve were injured. We still don’t know if Giffords will survive and recover her full capabilities. We will need to mourn this, and that mourning will require a “working-through” exacerbated by the fact that the casualties are strangers to us. It’s probably best to focus our attentions on the victims rather than the perpetrator, so let’s spend our time getting to know Christina Taylor Green, Judge John McCarthy Roll, Gabe Zimmerman, Phyllis Schneck, Dorwan Stoddard, and Dorothy Morris.
Second, those of us, like Paul Krugman, who blame Sarah Palin, Tea Party rhetoric, or the delusions about President Obama’s citizenship already look like douchebags scoring cheap political points, and that impression is likely to become much more severe in the coming weeks. The fact that the shooter first fixated on Representative Giffords in 2007 will make the false attributions of causality more and more difficult to maintain. It’s much more reasonable to target the laws that make firearms with extended clips so readily available, or that assume that more guns can produce more safety. I do not understand why people seek convoluted causes in the face of a clear etiology with a simple prescription. (I do suspect this tendency is partly attributable to the cultural turn in politics away from policy and material considerations to symbolic considerations. It is much more difficult to account for that initial turn away from pragma.)
Third, political violence in the US is at an all-time low, even as divisiveness and partisan fervor has increased. (Compare the current era to the Civil Rights era lynchings and assassinations.) On a per capita basis, it’s fallen even farther. Yet most people assume that domestic political violence is very, very common, a mistaken assumption produced by various cognitive biases like the availability heuristic and recency effects, and exacerbated by cable news and our predilection for substituting anecdotes when data is absent. Academic pundits would usually criticize the cognitive mistakes that create an atmosphere of fear and false beliefs about the prevalence of criminality in a social group, which we can explain through the same 24-hour news cycle, global news market, and “if it bleeds it leads” mentality that exacerbated fears of crime, terrorism, and drugs in previous decades. Yet now we’ve fallen for the same mistakes we generally accuse others of making. We ought to be chagrined at this, and instead we see academics-turned-pundits triumphantly crowing their tu quoques, unaware that they have failed to learn the lessons they ought to be teaching.