The Most Difficult Question: Why?
The recent assassination attempt of a member of the U.S. Congress – along with the attacks on those surrounding her at a gathering in Tucson – reminds us of how unexpected but violent tragedies generate an urgent need for explanations. Sometimes they are hard to find and sometimes they are premature. How does one come to grips with individuals who decide to kill others and then themselves? Think of the Columbine High school massacres or the more recent incident at Virginia Tech. Or even worse, the case of Timothy McVeigh who killed 165 people in Oklahoma City in 1995. Even when we do capture the culprits, we still find it difficult to get an answer to the main question: Why?

The fact that a member of Congress was the target of the Tucson assassin generated instantaneous political ramifications. While the motivation behind the plot remains murky, the attempted killing of a political figure immediately became part of the ongoing debate over gun laws. But it also became part of the search for a narrative within the larger framework of concerns over violence in American society and who or what is to blame for it. The fact that the Congresswoman is a Democrat became an opportunity for some critics on the left to explain the attack with the rhetoric used by members or supporters of the Tea Party in their verbal attacks against the Obama administration. Words, slogans, and symbols were presented as proof that the right-wing was aiming squarely at undermining the legitimacy of the president and his administration. Those responding from the right accused their critics of exploiting the attack for political gain, denying any linkage between their platforms and the killer in Tucson.

The last time a politician in Germany was shot – and survived the attack – was in 1990 when Wolfgang Schäuble, the current Finance Minister, was attacked by an individual who was allegedly angry about the course of German unification. Yet that attempted assassination – which put Schäuble permanently in a wheelchair – became another instance of dealing with a deranged individual, not an alleged political statement.

Needing Explanations for Incidents
Dealing with these violent incidents in Germany and the United States are reflections of the factors which shape the need for a narrative to explain them. In Germany, the outbreaks of violence were not seen as a threat to the society at large or to its political stability but more as a concern about the dangers of unstable minds and the need for indentifying them before they inflict violence. Homicides in the United States, be they of the dramatic sort as mass killings or part of the obscene annual rate of murders throughout the country, are not perceived to be contributing to the downfall of American society, as depressing as they are. They do, however, continuously generate demands for more effective gun control but as the Tucson tragedy demonstrates, there is an equally important need to be looking for the indicators of those individuals showing signs of psychological pathology.

Yet, in the case of this Tucson killing spree, there was an immediate link made by many to the raw atmosphere of political wrestling matches which have been going on for many years, indeed decades. Some would point back to the 1960s when the protests against the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement generated a lot of political confrontations around the country. Others point to the clashes between Left and Right during the Clinton years when the president was actually impeached. Still others aim at the controversial presidential election of 2000 and the clashes in the course of the years following 9/11, the war in Iraq, the impact of Hurricane Katrina, and finally the beginning of the recession in 2008. With the election of President Obama, the political fault lines seem to have gotten deeper despite the hope that this president was going to overcome partisan battles and change the political tone.

The Legitimacy of Arguments
Today’s concern is the increasing hostility and demonization of the opponents in the political boxing ring. It is the about the legitimacy of the arguments, or of the individuals themselves. The extreme version of that is to be found among those who question Obama’s birth records or among those who accuse opponents of the president’s policies of being racist. The cable television talking heads have, like churches, their own parishes, prayer books, and hymnals, and generally remain uninterested in hearing from the other congregations. Each side claims the high road of American values and commitment to constitutional legitimacy, but among the extreme groups, they deny same to their opponents.

It is important to keep in mind that the political boxing ring is much smaller than the media makes it out to be, with the majority of Americans watching the exchanges of punches and jabs without taking sides. Some European observers have a tendency to implicate the entire nation as wearing boxing gloves in the ring and thereby miss the fact that the majority of Americans are either not interested, not engaged, or even find the mudslinging appalling.

Confrontational – Yet Functioning – Democracies
Indeed, the United States is by no means unique. The political battles in other democracies can be equally intense and confrontational. Listening in to the parliamentary debates in London, Berlin, or Rome can illustrate a vibrant use of political invectives, accusations, and insinuations resulting in anger and outrage. Yet despite the vitriol in the debates, decisions get made and policies get implemented, no less than in the American Congress. In Germany today, the political debates over domestic and foreign policy are intense, but the parameters do not include accusations of the legitimacy of Angela Merkel as chancellor or references to the government’s dangers to German society. Some express concerns about the far right or left of the political spectrum but, with the exception of some fringe elements, there are no rants about conspiracies or existential threats to the nation. Even the current debate about integration and assimilation of foreign populations in Germany is being conducted for the most part as a serious challenge, not an ominous force. Here the lessons of German history are markers for the parameters of debate and discourse.

President Obama’s speech in Tucson on January 12 generated an appeal to Americans to benchmark ourselves against the ability to find what binds rather than what divides. This does not mean that debates will be necessarily less strident. Yet it could mean that the references we use to outline differences do not include words that suggest dangers of tyranny, impending doom, conspiracies, and other forms of paranoia. There are enough real problems to confront without creating ones that do not exist.

The narratives we need to deal with tragedies like the Tucson murders or those similar which impact other societies will always be shaped by the unique combination of symbols and appeals to common purpose. Eventually that will need to translate into specific action aimed at preventing future tragedies. But beyond that, there is a need to reaffirm a commitment to shared goals and efforts to reach them. And there is the hope that we don’t need another tragedy to remind us again to do it.


This essay appeared in the January 14, 2011, AICGS Advisor.