Monday, January 10, 2011

The Price of Freedom

I've been thinking a lot about the Arizona shooting on Saturday. My thoughts are with Rep. Giffords, but I'm betting Arizona will need to elect a new representative for her district. Nobody recovers from a bullet through the brain in a hurry.

I admit, my first response to the news was to wonder if someone would indict Sarah Palin for inciting to violence, if not for conspiracy to commit murder, because of her notorious web site with the gunsights on Democrats she wanted to remove. I've been following the story closely in the media (and I don't mean Fox News), and I've concluded that, probably, Sarah Palin and her web site weren't involved in this at all. The young man who did this wasn't listening to the Tea Party or Glen Beck; he was listening to the voices in his head.  If you put Sarah Palin on a platform in front of him, he might take a shot at her too.

Is the violent rhetoric used by Palin, by the Fox News commentators, and by a lot of people on the right, excusable? No, I don't think it is. The left was using this rhetoric in the Sixties - remember "kill the pigs!" - and it was wrong then, and it still is. You may not actually mean the violent things you say as metaphor, but you never know who is listening to you, or what they may do with your suggestions. In that sense, Keith Olbermann was right yesterday when he said we must all stop using metaphors of violence, even though I don't believe in this case that political metaphors of violence were involved at all.

No, yesterday's attack, and all the violent rhetoric we hear around us, are the price of our freedom.

Our constitution says that we have freedom of speech, which means that if we want to publish a photo of our opponent with a gunsight imposed over it, that's our right as Americans.  The fact that we have the right to do something doesn't make it "right" in the sense of just, correct, or even sensible.

Our constitution says we have the right to keep and bear arms, which means that if a troubled young man decides to buy an automatic pistol, he has every right to do so, and what he does with it is up to him.

Another amendment (I can't recall which) is normally used today to say that we cannot force mentally ill people into treatment.  This young man clearly needed treatment; he was kicked out of the local community college unless he were to come back with a clearance from a mental health professional.  The combination of this attitude with the free access to firearms allowed a deeply disturbed young man to buy a gun and kill six people.

I spent 19 years as a computer system programmer, in charge of maintaining IBM mainframe and Sun Solaris servers.  The first thing you learn as a system programmer is that you have absolute authority to do everything on the box - it's called the "God ID" - and this authority is dangerous.  You have to think about what you're doing.  You have to consider consequences.  Freedom is dangerous.  Americans have many freedoms.  We are, in fact, free to do a number of things that are totally stupid.  We have to start thinking about what we do and say.  We could start by trying to disagree with each other civilly.


  1. Jim Puskar11:42 AM

    Good thoughts, Karen; I generally agree. Where I disagree, however, is your point that the current vitriol in the political discourse is 'the price of our freedom.' We have just seen the result of a deranged person reacting to things that he has heard and read for years. I cannot believe that the two are not somehow interconnected. Unless we all take responsibility for ratcheting down the vitriol, this will happen again. People who have the means to reach a large segment of the population via the media are more responsible than they are willing to admit for the actions taken by this guy and others.

  2. You think you're disagreeing with me, Jim, but you actually make my point. If we pass formal rules restricting political discourse, to prevent the vitriol, we set a dangerous precedent against freedom of speech. The ONLY way to ratchet this down is for each person to take personal responsibility for the way they speak publicly, and for other people to correct them civilly when they go over the line.

  3. I don't see this as an issue of free speech, unless you want to argue that shooting someone is an "expression of free speech." And don't laugh, there are people on the far right who would certainly argue that position.

    I thought about this too. When Dubya was in power, I felt a visceral revulsion for his administration, and what he was perpetrating in our name. I thought that an anarchist's bullet might be the only solution for the suffering and death and debasement of our country which he brought down upon us. But the Right must have the same kind of freedom to criticize Obama, as we did with Dubya. If they want to call him a Muslim or a Kenyan or a Communist, that is their perfect right.

    Palin is another matter. Her political identity was built upon a sort of poppycock populism which included hunting as a pastime for girls. Fortunately she's so uneducated, and witless, that even the sensible people in her own party would happily wash their hands of her. Hopefully, this will put paid to any future political ambitions she may have in the future.

    The real issue here is the availability of handguns, automatic weapons, and the lack of any check on the sanity of purchasers. The gun dealers and their lobbyists exert power far in excess of their importance as a commercial enterprise, or as a representative faction of the general populace. In poll after poll, Americans favor control of handguns. But our Congress turns away in fear. It's disgusting.

  4. Curtis, of course the right must be as able to criticize Obama as we were to criticize Dubya. And oh, my, do they. But Obama's repeated requests for disagreeing without being disagreeable are what I'm talking about here.

    On the handgun issue, I'm right with you. I heard someone comment the other day about the insanity of a country that mandates the use of seat belts in cars, but not of trigger locks in houses.