Sunday, January 16, 2011

Imagining What Might Happen

photo by katie pangburn

Here's what we used to call a "thought experiment," meaning in this case simply thinking about consequences before they happen.  A very simple example to start:  You're driving along and well ahead you see a stop sign.  You imagine a choice--brake for the sign, or run the sign.  You imagine the possible consequences of each choice.  You then choose accordingly.

Ok.  We're up to speed, yes?  Now.  Imagine a situation rather similar to last week's Tucson Massacre.  That is, a number of innocent people, including children, are killed and wounded by an armed assailant.  And, let's suppose in this imaginary case that the assailant is proved to have acted because of inflammatory statements made by pundits and politicians.  How proved?  Well, let's just stipulate that.  It's proved.  We know, in this imaginary case.  Now, let's ask these culpable pundits and politicians a question: would you say the same inflammatory things if you knew this result was going to ensue?  This is a fork in the road, rather like the choice to brake or not.  And the content of this imaginary case isn't necessarily "right" or "left." 

I can imagine one justification for what must be described in this imaginary circumstance as reckless behavior, even as we all must admit that by definition "reckess behavior" has built into it the cautionary "do not do this" warning.  One could argue that some other things, such as, for example, the fate of the whole country, made risking the collateral damage of this imaginary act worth the risk.  For example, we do actually make this calculation in war.  And, for example, when the United States has killed various al Qaeda leaders with lethal force, there have been cases where entirely innocent women and children have also been killed.

This is almost the only case I can think of where one might justify reckless behavior in the face of an outcome as negative as that which occurred in Tucson.  Specifically, would anyone really argue that because they simply had the "right" to be inflammatory, that this justified being inflammatory given such an outcome.  And if someone did, would any one actually accept such an argument?  The situation isn't really about "rights," but about prudence and commonsense.  And how is "but they do it too" in any way a justification?  "He just ran the stop sign, officer, so I followed him right into the path of the school bus."  Really? 

So then.  Let's look at the argument that the shooter in Tucson was "crazy," and therefore immune to influence.  Suppose we went into his room, at his parents house, and found a poster with the Palin cross-hairs on his wall.  Would that be evidence, given that he's "crazy?"  Would anything be evidence, given that he's "crazy."  And since nearbout every gunman in these distressing cases is almost by definition "crazy," are we then to simply preclude the possibility that inflammatory rhetoric can conceivably affect behavior?

This conclusion seems hardly likely.  After all, the point of the inflammatory rhetoric is to influence behavior.  For example, would any sort of negative public reaction to the Obama Health Care Reform Act have been at all likely without the inflammatory rhetoric.  So if the point of the rhetoric is to influence behavior, are we to assume that "crazy" individuals are a kind of insulated, special case?  No matter what's going on around them, these people (whomever they may be) take no notice, are entirely involved in their own private fantasies?

I think the question not being asked, with regard to the Tucson shootings, is--was the inflammatory rhetoric justified by the circumstances to the extent that collateral damage was simply a price that might have to be paid.  And when Mrs. Palin has her conversation with Mr. Hannity tomorrow night, I hope she will address this important question.  Namely, was she and is she willing to risk the wounding and/or murdering of entirely innocent bystanders, including children, by using inflammatory rhetoric in support of her political cause?  And that answer would give any reasonable citizen some information about Mrs. Palin and her qualifications for responsible public office.  Does she or anyone really imagine that our current President, duely elected,  is a danger to the United States equivalent to the danger posed by the al Qaeda members that we kill with missiles and drone attack planes--even if collateral damage is an actuality.  And if the answer is surely a resounding, "NO," why are these people, pundits and politicians alike, risking what they are risking?  How glib do you get to be?  How many stop signs do you get to run?

I have serious doubts that Mr. Hannity will ask any such questions, of course.  But they're there, to be asked, and they're pretty easy to perceive.  Who is going to assert that only rational sensible people are going to be affected by reckless, inflammatory rhetoric, and only to do rational, sensible things, like vote or go out to a public rally.  The problem for the Right generally--Hannity as much as Palin, Gingrich as much as Limbaugh--is not that no one can prove that a crazy person was influenced by what they've said.  

1 comment:

  1. What are the magic words that cause people to pull out their guns and start shooting?

    How does anyone who speaks to any other person on the planet know if he/she (the speakder) has uttered the magic word that will result in another person shooting some other people?

    Why do you assume -- based on no evidence whatsoever -- that radio/tv gasbags possess this magical power to incite?

    David Koresh persuaded the Branch Davidians to die with him. Jim Jones took down even more people in Jonestown, Guyana. It appears gangsta rappers have induced young black males to shoot and wound and kill people.

    And, of course, the ultimate -- Islam -- there have been 17,000 lethal islamic terrorist attacks since 9/11.

    But you're convinced that a lone nut was acting out the wishes of Limbaugh, Beck or somebody, to shoot Giffords.

    Maybe Loughner was like Son of Sam -- David Berkowitz -- who said he was told to kill women in NY City by his neighbor's dog.