We’ve all heard it, “guns don’t kill people, people do”, the duplicitous logic of no-gun-control. Well then, how about this variation on the undeniable human component in killing? Words kill people, and so do images, in fact any of the elements of the complex human sign-system that people use can be responsible for producing actual lethal violence against others.
Jared Loughner’s murderous attack on an Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and a constituency crowd gathered at a Tucson supermarket on the morning of January 9th is now known to at least half the planet. In the seconds it took for him to empty the thirty rounds of his Glock machine pistol he killed six people and injured fourteen. The general opinion, based on reports of Loughner’s attendance at and dismissal from a community college, as well as his on-line postings, is that here was a very seriously disturbed individual. Words like “psychotic” and “schizophrenic” are freely bandied around.
But Loughner’s deranged state of mind is also desperately and dishonestly invoked by those who were responsible for stoking the fires of his unhappy imagination in the first place, in order that their talk and their imagery may continue to inflame the mind of America and yet never be held accountable. They say he was a lone “nut job” and no one is politically answerable. As if the drug peddler should come upon a fatality from an overdose and say this is nothing to do with him, because the victim in fact had a history of lung cancer. As if the words and imagery these people continually use to infect and affect people suddenly come to a full stop at the ear of an individual truly vulnerable to them.
For sure there has also been a reckoning with the poisoned political climate which prefaced that fateful morning. The local Sherriff of Pima County where the event took place, Clarence Dupnik, went on TV and suggested that hate speech, mistrust and rhetoric against government had a direct causal link to the attack. Several politicians appeared on the Sunday morning talk shows attempting to cool the temperature of political debate. Numerous commentators (including a prophetic warning months ago from Giffords herself) indicted Sarah Palin’s map with the gun-sight crosshairs over the congresswoman’s Arizona constituency as incitement to violence. Giffords’ Republican opponent, Jesse Kelly, also has to live down a June political event called “Get on Target for Victory” in which voters were invited to shoot a fully automatic M16 with the candidate.
Naming these connections is important but what needs to be understood is the way they are anything but trivial or superficial. It is not simply a matter of a “climate” that is somehow exterior to us. This kind of language and imagery touches a nerve at the root of our souls, a very dangerous one: the semiotics of violence, its sign-system, mobilizes us first in our deepest being and, after that, out come the semi-automatics!
The terms, signs and signals of armed violence are used to bring supporters of political movements to a state of energy and confidence that will ensure actual electoral and political victory. At a certain point I am sure that is the one and only intention, but it is already an extremely dangerous and culpable game which can and will spill over into overt violence at any moment. Jared Loughner was someone who complained about brainwashing and you could say that his fear was self-fulfilling. Violence has a deeply infectious quality to it and someone drinking at its politically-licensed fountain can quickly find themselves with a gun in hand. This is true of the population in general but it’s true in particular of the isolated individual, of the lone wolf looking somehow to make an impression. The general repetition of codes and cues invoking armed violence can work on a fragile sense of self to produce an acting out, which promises meaning to life but in fact brings catastrophe. There can be little doubt this was the case with Loughner.
Today in a sign-saturated world, where the codes of violence are so universally present in entertainment, there is a political temptation to use violent signals as a short route to power, but without thought for the consequences. As if signals and imagery can exist in some detached world of communication, solely as a language to shift opinion, but without becoming facts. We know now only too brutally how quickly they become facts.
Jesus was extremely aware of the way a violent world and its signs could be “downloaded” into individuals so they became possessed by violence. The Gerasene demoniac had a “legion” of demons within him, i.e. a division of Roman soldiers at full battle strength. Jesus set him free, and many like him, by the absolute regenerative peace he communicated.
Jesus also was very aware of the power of signs, of words and language, in their own right. “But I tell you that men will have to give account on the day of judgment for every careless word they have spoken. For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned." (Matthew 12:36-37) He’s not talking about simple offhand remarks, but the overall use of words, the way they can produce life or death, and it is a vitally serious consideration.
I believe perhaps the one good thing to come of this terrible episode is to make us more conscious of the power of signs, of images, of language, and to take up their challenge anew. Followers of Jesus do not fight on the battlefield, but they do continually engage in a struggle over signs, words and meaning. Their gospel of peace “Goes out through all the earth, (its) words to the end of the world.”
Tony Bartlett, T&P Theologian-in-Residence