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Jared Loughner and the Incarnation of Violent Rhetoric

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In the days since Jared Loughner carried a concealed Glock into a crowded Tucson parking lot and unloaded an oversized clip of bullets into the crowd, killing six -- including a 9-year-old girl and a federal judge -- and wounding 14, including a congresswoman who, apparently, was the deranged young man's initial target, Americans have been talking about violence. Specifically, we've been asking ourselves if Loughner's shooting rampage was motivated in any way by the vitriolic words and violent images generated by rightwing pundits and politicians.

It would be tempting to say -- as many commentators have -- that no connection exists between Loughner's murderous rampage and, for example, the Tea Party's insistence that the tree of liberty must be watered by the blood of tyrants or Sarah Palin's now-infamous map depicting the crosshairs of a gunsight over certain congressional districts, including Gifford's. After all, Loughner is, by all accounts, a seriously unstable human being with no known political affiliations. It would be easy not to engage in the hard work of introspection, and it would be so comforting to let the murder and the maiming be the work of an unstable, apolitical loner. It would be nice not to have to confront the Tea Party or the Minutemen, the pundits from Fox News or the ordinary Americans who in record numbers have rushed out to purchase 9-millimeter Glocks identical to the one used by Jared Loughner.

But we must examine violent, right-wing rhetoric in the light of what happened in Tucson, because whatever motivations or inner-demons inspired the attack, it showed America -- however accidentally -- what it looks like when such rhetoric of vitriol becomes real. It was the word made flesh, and dwelling among us, an incarnation of violence conceived in anger, hatred and fear.

Jared Loughner has forced us to take sides. Will we speak with the metaphors of violence that cannot but call our attention back to the Safeway parking lot in Tucson, or will we embrace a more peaceable vocabulary whose incarnation will serve the common good and conspire to form and reform the more perfect union that we dare to hope will be inherited by our children?

The choice should be an easy one. As for me and my house, we will speak words of peace, and not just because we are peaceable people but because violent words and deeds are entirely counterproductive. This is a lesson I first learned in another era of (relatively) recent American history, when organized violence, both rhetorical and actual, was perpetrated by the extreme left.

In the summer of 1990, I was an intern for a coalition of 12 mostly tiny and rural Presbyterian congregations in Northern California's Humboldt County. That summer a group of radical environmentalists calling themselves Earth First! organized a coalition of like-minded groups that brought thousands of activists from around the world to protest the logging of ancient Redwood trees in Northern California. Collectively, the protests and actions were dubbed "Redwood Summer."

While the protests were non-violent in theory, some activists took the message of radical environmentalism literally and became terrorists, driving spikes deep into the trunks of redwood trees. At the mill, the blades from the large and powerful bandsaws that first cut the logs would strike the spikes, sending deadly bits of splintered bandsaw blade flying around the mill floor. It was lethal but it accomplished nothing beyond its destruction.

Here's what we need to learn from Redwood Summer: the language of fringe environmentalism that was made incarnate in violence of ecoterrorism didn't work. While ecoterrorists spiked trees, the logging accelerated. The large business conglomerates which had bought out locally-owned logging companies in the years leading up to Redwood Summer had debts to pay and shareholders to satisfy so they continued the redwood harvesting at an unsustainable rate. Most of the mills since have closed down, and the economy has never recovered from the devastation. The fears of everyone, on both sides of the Redwood Summer conflicts, have been realized: the destruction of forests and watersheds and the loss of timber industry jobs.

So it is with the violent rhetoric that has soiled American discourse and has been brought to life by Jared Loughner. It doesn't work. I don't believe that the purveyors of nasty speech actually wanted to see their words come to life in a Tucson Safeway parking lot. They wanted to stir up their base, to win elections and to make media waves. But in the end, after the next election cycle, and after the fickle public has moved on to the Next Big Thing, no one will remember what they hoped to achieve. All that future generations will remember is the death of six people and the wounding of 14 others. Nothing else will remain because nothing else matters.

We must choose peace.

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