America’s Heart of Darkness

America is grieving, although you’d never know it with all the pointing fingers.

You have to hand it to our cousins to the south. When something rips through the heart of their sweet land of liberty, they don’t shy away from it.  Public debate was raging even before the Tucson dead were laid in the ground and the fate of the target, Democratic Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, was known. The overwhelming sense I get from reading the online version of the New York Times and watching newscasts is that Americans are looking straight into the darkest parts of their country’s soul.

Then there is the finger pointing. The left is pointing at the vitriolic rants from right wing commentators such as Rush Limbaugh and a map of targeted Democrats on Sandra Palin’s website. The right is pointing back, saying the left is using the atrocity to make political hay when it is patently obvious that the shooter, Jared Loughner, is a seriously ill young man.

Palin's target map from her facebook page. (click to open in new tab)

A plague on both their houses. Or, as conservative New York Times columnist, Ross Douthat, observed, political violence in American politics “tends to bubble up from a world that’s far stranger than any Glenn Beck monologue – a murky landscape where … the line between ideological extremism and mental illness gets blurry fast.”

Whatever role the murky political landscape in the US might have played in Tucson, it certainly seems that some sort of permission had been given to Mr Loughner, otherwise why target Ms Giffords? He could have shot the taxi driver who drove him to the mall, or the Safeway clerks that changed his twenty, or the people in the line-up at the mall. But he didn’t. He shot a well-known Democratic Congresswoman who had been targeted by the right. I’ve seen this sort of thing first hand and it’s frightening how quickly violence can follow. When an authority, be it a talk-show host, a politician or a police chief, denounces someone or some group and there is no countervailing response from another authority, some people – and not just crazy people – take that as permission to do harm.

Most undergraduate psychology students come across the troubling experiments of Yale’s Stanley Milgram who, in the early 1960s, set out to show that anyone, not just German soldiers, could allow and even perpetrate atrocities. On one side of a wall, he sat an actor, one of the experimenters. He put his subjects, one at a time, on the other side of the wall with another experimenter, the “authority,” who instructed them that they were to help teach the man in the next room. Every time he gave a wrong answer the “authority” told the subject to press a button to deliver an electric shock, and to increase the intensity of the shock with each mistake. There was no electric shock of course, but the actor was convincing. He cried out in pain. He banged on the wall. He fell silent when the intensity of the shock became lethal. Over 70% of Milgram’s subjects shocked the actor to the level of severe pain simply on the say-so of the “authority,” and 65% delivered a final, “fatal” 450-volt shock. His experiment was repeated by others in 2006 with the same results.

Of his experiments, Milgram wrote: “Ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process. Moreover, even when the destructive effects of their work become patently clear, and they are asked to carry out actions incompatible with fundamental standards of morality, relatively few people have the resources needed to resist authority.”

Everyone, sane and insane, stupid and intelligent, is capable of harm, given the right atmosphere and given authoritative permission. Hateful, partisan words from authority figures do real damage. They demean, they remove reason from discourse, they encourage half-truth, they demonize. And they grant permission. Words have power and we Canadians, who like to think of ourselves as kinder, gentler versions of our American cousins, are not immune.

As Representative Giffords herself said in response to Sandra Palin’s map: “We’re on Sarah Palin’s targeted list. But the thing is the way that she has it depicted, as the cross hairs of a gun sight over our district. When people do that, they’ve got to realize there’s consequences to that.”

Add a constitutional right to bear arms and a gun-toting culture to go with it and a craving for celebrity (aim for fame, folks) and you create the lethal weapon that shot down a popular politician and 18 others at an Arizona shopping mall.

This is how America grieves – by tough, public, look it in the eye debate. They’ve done this before of course: in 1963 when President Kennedy was assassinated, and in 1968 when Martin Luther King was gunned down and then, two months later, Bobby Kennedy; in 1975 when George Wallace was crippled, and Gerald Ford was shot at; in 1975 when San Francisco mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk were shot and killed and in 1981 when Ronald Reagan was wounded. And they’ll probably do it again.

In his first speech on the assassination of Martin Luther King, Senator Robert Kennedy quoted this from Aeschylus: “Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.” The question that lingers is “when?”

December 1, 2010
© David McLaren

David McLaren is a writer living on the Bruce Peninsula in Ontario, Canada.


From Wikipedia Entry for Milgram Experiment

The experiments began in July 1961, three months after the start of the trial of German Naziwar criminalAdolf Eichmann in Jerusalem. Milgram devised his psychological study to answer the question: “Was it that Eichmann and his accomplices in the Holocaust had mutual intent, in at least with regard to the goals of the Holocaust?”

Setup for Milgram's 1st experiment, 1961

The experimenter (E) orders the teacher (T), the subject of the experiment, to give what the latter believes are painful electric shocks to a learner (L), who is actually an actor and confederate. The subject believes that for each wrong answer, the learner was receiving actual electric shocks, though in reality there were no such punishments. Being separated from the subject, the confederate set up a tape recorder integrated with the electro-shock generator, which played pre-recorded sounds for each shock level.[1]

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About David McLaren

David McLaren is an award-winning writer. He has worked in government and the private sector, with NGOs and First Nations in Ontario. He is currently writing from Neyaashiinigamiing on the shore of Georgian Bay and can be reached at david.mclaren@utoronto.ca. In February 2015, he won the nomination for the NDP to represent the riding of Bruce-Grey-Owen Sound in the 2015 federal election. See that page for writings during the campaign.
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