Wednesday, July 30, 2008

The larger moral questions provoked by the Knoxville church shooting

Right now, I still believe that the focus concerning the church shooting in Knoxville should remain on the human, rather than the political. There are many websites and organizations pouring out love and sympathy for those affected by this tragedy...
The words "The sun'll come out tomorrow - bet your bottom dollar that tomorrow there'll be sun!" rang through Second Presbyterian Church sanctuary. Children and adults wiped tears, hugged and blew out candles lit minutes earlier at a vigil held in the wake of the Sunday morning shooting at neighboring Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church.

Members of both churches, which stand adjacent on Kingston Pike, attended. Also attending were Westside Unitarian Universalist Church members. Members of that church also were shot Sunday. But the sanctuary pews, balconies and aisles were filled with Knoxvillians from all - and sometimes of no - organized faiths. Some latecomers were soaked by a summer rainstorm; lighting flashed and thunder boomed during parts of the service. The message was one of comfort and strength in times of crisis and pain.
But there are also attacks on what are seen as the far-right roots of the shooter's hatred and agitated responses from defensive conservatives. Based on some of my own recent experiences with this, I wanted to share something to help us see one of the bigger pictures brought into relief not only by this tragedy but by the political and ideological responses it has provoked.

If you read the collected reports in the Knoxville papers the evidence collected, from eye witness accounts of the attack to the gunman's "manifesto" to interviews with neighbors and acquaintances, Adkisson strongly identifies with the many of the popular messages of radical conservatism, particularly the more intolerant ones such as "Liberals are evil", "Liberals are dangerous", "Liberals are traitors", "Liberals are more of a threat than those scary Muslim terrorists", and "Liberals should be eliminated". The evidence for that doesn't just go away because someone doesn't like it or thinks that the killer doesn't fit with their conception of what a conservative should be or because they don't want to share the same ideological label as a murderer. Liberals would feel the same way if someone who claimed to "hate the conservatives" went in tried to shoot up a politically conservative congregation. Yet it is has been noted (here and here, for example) that the description of Adkisson's four page "manifesto" recalls an extreme anti-liberal rhetoric one can hear on the radio or read in popular books and blogs.

There are at least two forms of naive oversimplifying that can occur when discussing the revelation that Jim D. Adkisson, the gunman who assaulted a Unitarian-Universalist congregation, owned books by conservative talk-show hosts and attributed his violence to a hatred of liberals. One form of naivety is thinking that the shooter was simply following verbatim the instructions written in the books containing anti-liberal sentiments found at his home, the other is to assume that such books, corresponding comments on talk-radio and the internet, etc had absolutely nothing to do with what happened. I can understand the desire on the part of those who consider themselves to be conservative to do this in this particular case, it is a mistake.

The fact is that just because one doesn't "blame" conservatism or all conservatives for what happened in Knoxville DOES NOT mean that we shouldn't seriously consider to what degree the social/political climate contributed to this tragedy. And this is not an attack on conservatism, nor a defense of liberalism. I believe this can be a problem for religious folks and non-religious, theists and atheists, etc. So please bear with me through the whole thing.

Consider a different context for a moment other than conservatism. Imagine a situation in a community where some folks start making racist jokes to those they think will appreciate them. Some don't think they are funny but say nothing. Others chuckle a bit. So some of the jokers start making even more hardcore jokes, including ones involving suggestions of violence. No one stands up to it, even those who aren't as comfortable with the new harsher tone. Some ignore the jokes or only laugh at the lighter ones, but a growing hardcore is really into it.

So now we have an atmosphere that is somewhat toxic. That is, it is fairly offensive and sickening to those not used to breathing its fumes. But as this atmosphere goes relatively unchallenged, those at the sickening edge go further, inciting hatred and intolerance. Someone with a lot of frustration and rage has been soaking in these toxic fumes, which are now a poisonous cloud, for some time now and buys into the whole thing in a very concrete way. When some event happens that causes him to become unhinged and plunge over the edge, he puts this rhetoric into action.

Some folks didn't like the racism at all, but said nothing. Others thought the lighter stuff was funny, and just ignored the harder stuff. Some were secretly enjoying some the harder stuff but really didn't take a lot of it seriously. And some were just enjoying the derisiveness and how it pumped up their egos too much to care either way. Yet to some degree all of these groups contributed to an increasingly toxic atmosphere which became poisonous. And when that poisonous atmosphere came into prolonged contact with someone whose moral, emotional, mental, or other defects allowed this poison to get deep into his system, all that was needed was a spark, some stressful event, to set him off.

Now let me be clear. I am not suggesting a defense for the shooter. I am not suggesting he isn't responsible for his actions. I am guessing a psych evaluation will determine that. Nor am I suggesting by some back door that all conservatives are guilty of causing this tragedy. I realize that this subtle distinction can be confusing because it takes a broader view of the potential influences leading up to an event and includes factors which may not have directly and decisively affected the outcome. It also introduces a moral standard beyond the strict legal standard concerning liability. This can be illustrated briefly with another example I have used before.

Suppose a madman is holding some small children hostage with a machete. Two police officers were caught off guard when the incident began. One is dead and the other is bleeding to death. EMS workers can't get to the injured officer without setting off the killer, who is not providing the SWAT sharpshooters with a shot. Because of the killer's position, however, the killer cannot see you. You are next to the dead officer and have taken his firearm. You have a clear shot at the killer, who is raising his blade and getting ready to attack one of the children. In this version of the classic "Is it ever OK to kill?" hypothetical, most people would shoot the killer. I would too. Yet for me, that isn't the end of the hypothetical, because I don't think I did a morally kosher thing.

I don't believe there is a right thing in that scenario, just the lesser of two wrongs. I find this important because it keeps clear the fact that harm did come of my actions, whether or not others would find them justified or legal. There was a whole host of wrongs over many years on the part of many, both actions and inactions, which would have led to that scenario, and while the killer bears the primary responsibility, especially in the legal sense, his life didn't happen in vacuum. The moral failure didn't start when the man with the machete started hacking people, that was just its horrifying fruition. Neither did the life of the violent nut in my racism hypothetical. Neither did the life of Jim D. Adkisson.

If our lives don't occur in a vacuum, then the atmosphere to which we are exposed, be it social, political, religious, etc, cannot be ignored just because of a preference for emphasizing personal responsibility in moral and legal judgments. The two are not mutually exclusive. Is that not one of the conservative argument for not allowing gay adoption - that homosexuality is an unhealthy atmosphere for a child? Is that not the bipartisan argument for going after video game designers and producers who market games with realistic violence to kids?

Hate is not generated or sustained in a vacuum. And I don't believe it is wise to limit the scope of the discussion, in the case of the Knoxville shooter, strictly to particular talk-shows or the books by their hosts. Those are just a couple of examples of particular media echoing a particular kind of poisonous thinking that has settled over what I referred to as the radical right or radical conservatism and which is seeping into more popular conservative outlets. The fewer people who support such a toxic atmosphere, either casually or generously, the better. For those conservatives who reject it, awesome. For those who vocally criticize joking suggestions that the only way to talk to liberals is "with a baseball bat", bravo.

Which brings us back to Adkisson. Does anyone really believe his rants and tirades against the evils and dangers of liberals just came from nowhere? That the similarity, from what we know so far, of his beliefs about the specific damages he felt liberals are doing to the country and those from the far right talking points is just a coincidence? That there is no connection between the poisonous atmosphere of the radicals on the right and Adkisson's hatred of the "liberal movement"?

FYI, this is why I am against the tone of some who identify with the "new atheists". I am not concerned with their arguments, which have been widely criticized as a selective reading history coupled with a poor understanding of theology and tedious over-generalizations, but rather with the attitude (see the recent actions by PZ Meyers and a response from a member of the community Meyers set out to antagonize and offend). Their demagoguery helps push the atheist dialogue to a more disrespectful place and opens up (additional and more visible) space for potential extremists who could then create their own poisonous atmosphere of repugnant rhetoric which vilifies and scape goats religious people in the same way I fear that some conservative commentators are creating space for or in some cases echoing such rhetoric with regard to "liberals".

The same can be said of the the hateful speech on some liberal blogs, such as comments rejoicing in the Tony Snow's diagnosis of cancer as well as his death, which can also generate and sustain an offensive atmosphere that becomes poisonous. It can happen any time someone goes from criticizing or lampooning the ideas or agendas of a group targeting people who are identified with a particular label. We all need to work to clean and prevent further pollution in the public square, starting with the groups with which we ourselves have the most influence, which are generally those who tend to otherwise share our outlook and values.

1 comment:

  1. Apparently others are picking up on this theme as well...

    "While ultimate responsibility resides with the shooters, we can also connect these deaths to too much toxic talk radio. Both the left and the right play the blame game all day long. On talk radio, my problems are always somebody else's fault.

    This is the kind of tragedy that occurs when we adopt war rhetoric, turning our fellow Americans into enemies. Both sides have effectively demonized the opposition, laying blame for our problems at others' feet. Would it "kill" talk radio announcers to tone down their tenor for the sake of the common good? Could they sacrifice a few ratings points by refusing to serve the red meat their most radicalized listeners relish? Can we discipline ourselves to change the channel when the scapegoating begins?"

    -Craig Detweiler at God's Politics


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