The Mob, Violence, and Lone Gunmen

David Parry bio photo By David Parry

“We cannot be unaware of the fact that, particularly with the internet, there’s this huge echo-chamber out there, and anything any of us says falls on the unhinged and the hinged alike, and we just have to be sensitive to it.”-Bill Clinton

As academics we tend to privilege the slow detailed nuanced carefully developed analytic response over initial immediate reactions, or at least that is where we hope our social worth lies. However, in the case of the Arizona killings and the attempted assassination of Arizona representative Gabrielle Giffords, I think our collective immediate reaction is particularly valuable. Or to be a little more complicated about the matter I think a nuanced analysis of our immediate reaction reveals a great deal about this event.

The immediate reaction it seemed to me, was not one of shock and surprise, “how did this happen,” but rather one of acceptance, “it was just a matter of time,” and “Arizona, yes that seems about right.” It was as if we expected this to happen, and expected it to happen in a place like Arizona. This collective reaction, I think is something that ought not be overlooked. Indeed, although many have critiqued Sheriff Dupnik and his remarks following the killings, he was in some respect just giving voice to what many of us already feared was the truth.

And this truth, was not merely limited to the “liberal mainstream media” as conservative pundits seem to now be claiming. Indeed conservative pundits and instigators on the right complicity admitted that their rhetoric was perhaps a contributing factor, how else to explain the ensuing scrubbing of websites to remove violent rhetoric, most prominetly by Sarah Palin. Plain’s later claim that the now infamous crosshairs were not gunsights, but rather survey marks, seem almost laughable given the fact that her PAC scrubbed the site to remove the graphic and that her tweet “Don’t retreat, instead RELOAD” was also deleted from her account. The idiocy of attempting to scrub the internet memory not withstanding (many people self included, just archived and reposted the content), the act of attempting to delete means that those doing the deleting recognized that it was entirely plausible that their rhetoric had a role to play in these killings.

Enter twenty four hours of media spin and subsequent revelations about Loughner, and now the story is becoming, “Loughner is a lone gunmen” someone who was mentally disturbed and thus the rhetoric of Palin, Angle and other Tea Party leaders is in no way to blame for the killings in Arizona. Even John Stewart seemed to endorse this view on his show when suggesting that this was simply the actions of a crazy person.

But, as John Proveti argues, things are not simple, and to attempt to locate direct causality is to in fact miss the point. Proveti usefully invokes what he calls “billiard ball causality,” the idea that there has to be a direct one to one casual relation between items. However, what we know is that things are far more complicated than this, and events are produced not by a singular cause, but rather effects are always produced by multiple causes. The billiard ball causality is a ridiculously short sighted, even outdated way of articulating how we now understand the world to operate. Events take place in a field of cause and effects, linear (narrative) causality is a fiction we tell ourselves so that me might feel directly in control of events and our lives.

The notion of a “lone crazed gunman” is precisely one of these fictions. There is simply put, no such things as a “lone-nut.” What networks teach us is that causes and connections are always multiple, and that individual subjectivity matters less than the collective forces acting on that subjectivity (for a very readable but somewhat disturbing analysis of this I recommend Connected by Christakis and Fowler). That is we should understand the event as happening in a field of relations, where some are indeed more influential than others, but nevertheless all are contributing factors. Indeed even the notion that Loughner is mentally disturbed is in and of itself a multiple cause not a singular one (we could talk about the mental health system in America for example). But also that mental problems alone cannot account for this event, in a society which outlaws guns this event would play out very differently, a point Richard Grusin aptly makes.

In this regard it is not entirely inappropriate, or incorrect to talk about a climate of violence surrounding politicians. In a society where images and rhetoric circulate which paint the politicians as generally disconnected from the public, and reinforce the idea that the average citizen has little to no political power outside of the barrel of a gun we should not find it surprising that these guns appear both at political rallies and in the hands of “disturbed individuals.” Again Grusin:

“Repeated assertions of the appropriateness of using violence against elected government officials when one is unable to use democratic measures to get one’s way produce a structure of feeling and an anti-government violent mood within which individual and collective political action and affectivity unfold. We do not directly have to read or hear any particular call for anti-government violence for it to influence our actions. The totality of such violent rhetorical expressions, repeated ad nauseum in print, televisual, and networked media, provides the atmosphere or environment within which our relation to the government takes shape.”

And in this regard we should not view this act as a singular event, but a general distrubing trend, which we ignore by placing sole causality on the idea that Loughner was a “lone wolf” who was “mentally derranged.” That Loughner was mentally disturbed seems a pre-drawn conclusion, don’t you have to be mentally disturbed to pull a gun and start killing unarmed people, but why this mentally disturbed individual chose to play out this violent act against a politician is not so simply explainable by the claim that he was mad. For his “madness” actually displays a surprising amount of reflection of “our madness.” Loughner’s videos display statements about being disempowered, brainwashed, and exploited by the government, all claims which line up with rhetoric of certain leaders within the Tea Party movement. It seems to me crucial that Loughner’s act was directed at a local government official, not other forces. In this respect the shooting was anything but a random event.

The problem is that by isolating the event, treating with billiard ball causality we fail to understand how it is part of a much larger field, yes a climate, of events happening in this democracy. For all of the explaining, spinning, and pontificating that has been happening, attempting to de-couple the violent political rhetoric for Loughner’s trigger pulling it seems that those doing the talking have an extremely short memory when they claim that violent rhetoric doesn’t lead to violent action.

Recall just a little over six months ago Byron Williams, who on July 18th engaged in a shoot out on with California Highway Police on I-580. According to Williams he was traveling to San Fransisco for the purpose of starting a revolution, attacking the Tides foundation and the ACLU. Why would Williams do such a thing? Believe that the revolution had to be started with the Tides foundation and the ACLU? The answer is fairly straight forward. And yes it would be easy to treat Williams as an isolated crazy, a lone gun man, and clearly like Loughner he was by definition mentally disturbed. But as with the Loughner case he existed within a climate of hate, where it was becoming increasingly acceptable to direct such hate at politicians and political entities.

The events are beginning to stack up, and to dismiss each as “lone gunman” or the acts of crazy individuals is to miss the pattern and ecosystem within which these events are occurring and to more crucially miss the chance to intervene. Here is where we get to Bill Clinton’s quote, but first a short detour through one last, by comparison minor instance of political violence by “crazy people.”

Recall back to the 2008 election cycle where the Palin team was using negative rhetoric attempting to paint Obama as un-American, a terrorist sympathiszer, and even hinting at the fact that he might not be “one of us,” an outsider or Muslim perhaps. Republican rallies, especially ones where Palin was headlining were increasingly populated by supporters who reflected this rhetoric, developing a mob like atmosphere, something which I have elsewhere referred to as the Palin mob.

At the height of this rhetoric, nastiness in the campaign, McCain appeared at an event in Minnesota. When I talk in class or at speaking engagements on democracy in the age of internet rhetoric I often point to this incident as a turning point. After his speech a woman in the audience stands up and says, “Obama is an Arab,” to which McCain responds “No ma’am, [Obama’s] a decent family man, citizen, that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues.” The crucial moment comes after McCain’s intervention though, interviewed afterwards, the woman responds that she still thinks Obama is an Arab.

And so here we have a crucial moment in politics, the mob is unleashed, and the leaders can’t call it off. When people talk about internet democracy they often refer to the enabling power of “Smart Mobs.” As if technology plus mobs yields smart mobs, but here is the thing, technology plus mobs doesn’t yield smart mobs it just yields really really powerful mobs, many of which aren’t so smart, in fact many of which are downright treacherous. (To be fair I think this formulation of Smart Mobs is unfairly attributed to Howard Rheingold whose book is titled Smart Mobs, but a careful reading of that book especially the final chapter demonstrates that Rheingold underdstands the dangers of this technology even as he is extolling their virtues.)

Loughner isn’t a singular case, he is an actor in a landscape, a landscape that grows increasingly hostile towards the government, one which is amplified by the power of technology. The power of the internet has yielded not smart mobs, but really really dangerous ones. The messages trafficked on the internet (to be fair these are not solely attributable to the net but rather the net plays a significant role in this landscape) contribute in a dangerous, and almost uncontrollable way to the violence we are now witnessing.

Here is the scary part Loughner isn’t a “lone gunman” rather he is an actor in a mob, to be sure he is at the extreme distance of the mob, but nevertheless part of it, part of the mob that we are all for better or worse participating in, and which I fear no amount of intervention by leaders, figureheads, or spokespeople can correct. This mob requires different sorts of interventions entirely.