In Dorothy Sayers' novel Gaudy Night, set (and written) in 1930s England, a group of Oxford University dons are the targets of threats and violence by a deranged individual. The motive of the perpetrator (spoiler alert!) turns out to be that one of the dons had, years earlier, caught the perpetrator's spouse in academic dishonesty, and the spouse had been dismissed from his position, and ultimately committed suicide.
Near the end of the novel, the main character, Harriet Vane, experiences a great deal of conflict over the resolution of the mystery. Which individual was really at fault? Was it the woman who made the threats, a widow whose grief drove her to threaten those she felt were smug, ivory-tower intellectuals who cared nothing for the love and devotion of a wife for her husband? Or was it the don who had exposed the husband's "crime" -- which was withholding evidence contrary to his thesis in an academic paper? Is that a sin that's worth a life?
The perpetrator, when found out, snarls at the dons, "... (C)ouldn't you leave my man alone? He told a lie about somebody who was dead and dust hundreds of years ago. Nobody was the worse for that. Was a dirty bit of paper more important than all our lives and happiness? You broke him and killed him -- all for nothing." The don whose words led to the man's dismissal, and ultimately his suicide, says, "I knew nothing of (his suicide) until now... I had no choice in the matter. I could not foresee the consequences... but even if I had..." She trails off, making it clear that in her view, her words had to be spoken, that academic integrity was a mandate -- even if that stance left a human being in ruins.
It's not, really, a very happy story. One is left feeling, at the end of the book, that the incident left only losers, no winners.
The same is true of the tragic shooting today of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona.
At the writing of this post, Rep. Giffords is still alive, but an innocent child and a federal judge are both dead because of the shooting. The shooter, Jared Loughner, is clearly mentally ill, to judge by the YouTube video he had posted (now taken down) and posts on his MySpace page (now also gone). But at the center of his rage were nothing more than words. Words, words, words.
His video clip rails against the government, posits conspiracy theories about mind control, claims that America is a "terrorist nation." He didn't come up with those words himself; others put them there. Others fed him those distortions, and in his twisted, faulty logic he bought them wholesale. Loughner himself is, of course, responsible for the shootings; but what blame lies with the ones who, whatever their motives, broadcast the ideologies he espoused?
Sarah Palin's website posts a map of vulnerable Democratic members of congress -- and identifies them on the map with rifle crosshairs. (See the map here.) And she's not the only one. How about Ann Coulter: "It's the Christmas season, so godless liberals are citing the Bible to demand the redistribution of income by government force." Or Pat Buchanan: "If the left hasn't realized it yet, Obama has: liberals have lost the country. The liberal hour is over in America and the West." And lest you think that the inflammatory rhetoric comes only from the right, how about Ted Rall: "Like Jon Stewart's Million Moderate March, No Labels is meant 'not to create a new party, but to forge a third way within the existing parties, one that permits debate on issues in an atmosphere of civility and mutual respect,' say organizers. Sweet. Because, you know, you should always be civil and respectful to people who think torture and concentration camps are A-OK."
And, of course, all of these folks want to accomplish two things; to use emotionally-charged language in order to make their own opinions sound unassailable, and to generate such a negative spin on their opponents' thinking that readers are left believing that only morons could possibly agree with them. The most appalling thing about the coverage of the shooting of Giffords and today's other victims was the immediate volcanic eruption of posts and tweets -- half of them labeling the shooter Loughner as a Tea-Party Ultra-Right-Winger who had attacked Giffords because she was too liberal (based upon his anti-federal statements and his identification of Mein Kampf on his MySpace page as one of his favorite books), and the other half identifying him as a loony leftist who had attacked Giffords because she was too conservative (based upon his stated atheism and his identification of The Communist Manifesto as one of his favorite books). A frighteningly small number stated the truth: that Rep. Giffords is a devoted, hard-working woman who wants only the best for her country, and her attacker is simply crazed and delusional.
I'm appalled not just because these political hacks are using this tragedy to hammer in their own views with an increasingly polarized citizenry; but because they are doing this, blind to the end results of their words, just like the Oxford don in Gaudy Night whose dedication to the nth degree of academic integrity made her blind to the human cost of her actions. Words are tools, and they are using them with as much thought and responsibility as a five-year-old with a chainsaw.
I will end with a devout hope that Rep. Giffords and the other wounded individuals in today's attacks will pull through and eventually be healed completely of their injuries, and that the families of those who died will be able to find consolation in the outpouring of sympathy from the vast majority of Americans who still value compassion over political rhetoric. And to the ideologues who are using this tragedy as a platform to trumpet their views, I can only say: shut the hell up.