A youngster returned from his first day in grade school. His parents eagerly asked him what he had learned.
“Some addition”, said the boy.
“Oh, what addition did you do, sweetie?”, asked the mother, beaming.
The boy began proudly, “One plus one, the son of a bitch is two, two plus two, the son of a bitch is four, three plus three, the son of a bitch is six,…”
Furious and shocked, the parents headed straight to school and complained to the principal. He called the teacher over to his office to investigate. It turned out the teacher had been saying, “One plus one, the sum of which is two”, etc.
The boy had merely interpolated words he had been hearing at home!
The wisdom that children learn from us not just what we intend to teach them comes slowly to parents, often too late.
The Arizona killings have provoked predictable condemnations: of the atmosphere of indiscriminate rhetoric all around us, of imbecilic talk show hosts, of arch but canny political aspirants. The tragedy of six people shot dead and several others left struggling for their lives does require any amplification. It would be a pity, though, if a round of editorials chiding the “heatedness of our discourse” was all that came out of this. The seeds of Tucson lie far deeper.
In an article written in 2004, during the 9/11 Commission hearings, I concluded with the following words,
…there was something frightening about blue-ribbon commisioners and government witnesses speaking calmly about presidents ordering assassinations, even if the target was Osama bin Laden. Governments are supposed to capture and try outlaws, not engage in mafia-style rumination over hits and misses. The social cost of such brutalisation is incalculable. (A Sorry Spectacle, Hindu, May 4, 2004)
Whether it is George W. Bush some lines from Bonanza or Gunsmoke in the days following 9-11, or Barack Obama ordering the assassination of individuals in other countries (and his representatives telling Congress that the president had the right to kill American citizens without due process as we have known it), the acceptance of assassination as a legitimate element of governance has had plenty of time to seep into the nation’s consciousness.
The syllogism of (1) X is a bad guy, (2) it’s OK to kill bad guys out of hand and (3) any collateral damage is natural. has been drilled into our minds by the highest government officials, and supported without complaint by the press and media by and large, save for those times when they have demanded even more extreme measures with even less restraint. The political class has been mute in the face of systematic and blatant violations of the rule of law. The notion that there is a difference between an outlaw and a government in the matter of pursuing “justice” has been obliterated with near-diligent effort over the last decade. The idea that any level of arbitrariness in the pursuit of “bad guys” is fully justified, and more, beyond the pale of law, has taken strong root. When President George W. Bush said about illegal wiretapping, “You know when that law was passed? 1978”, brushing off any misunderstanding that it applied to him today, he conveyed to the American people a clear message that lawbreaking was almost cool. When his successor took the “high road” refusing to prosecute the most elemental crimes against our laws and the Constitution, he deepened further the miasma of moral confusion in the land.
The alleged killer in Arizona is 22 years of age, which means he is one of the first products of a brave new age; one to have spent his entire adolescence in a milieu where political leaders and putative intellectuals can call for assassination (whether of Julian Assange or a Middle-Eastern terrorist makes no difference to its legitimization in an impressionable mind) without hesitation, without squeamishness, and without consequence. It is not difficult to imagine that sooner or later, someone would mentally substitute indigenous “bad guys” for foreign ones.
Will George W. Bush and Barack Obama own up to their contributions to the dilution of the law, open devotion to militarism, and indirectly, to Tucson? Don’t count on it. Expect instead, more restrictions, more security, more inanity. Which elder has ever admitted he led the young astray?
NIRANJAN RAMAKRISHNAN is a writer living on the West Coast. He can be reached at email@example.com.