Saturday, March 27, 2010

Does it Matter Whose Fault it Is?

This week, a lot of threats, epithets, and mild vandalism has been hurled in the general direction of Democratic members of Congress.  Most of this has either been directly related to anti-healthcare-bill protests or presumed to be linked to them.  Among those who condemn this state of affairs, there seem to be two schools of thought.  One holds that these actions represent the worst of the worst of the fringe on the right, and those responsible are simply doing what they do.  The other holds that the rhetoric by more mainstream pundits and politicians who oppose the bill has been sufficiently over the top that it has given approval to or incited this behavior.

The question of whose fault this is is largely being treated as a political question, but does it have a practical application?  If someone gets hurt or, God forbid, killed, does it matter to the survivors whether they were encouraged or incited or just acting on their own?  I actually think it does, but perhaps not for the reasons you would expect.

Let's imagine, for the sake of argument, that someone shoots up a congressional office in protest of the bill.  No one is injured (by a miracle) but there are a lot of very scared, very traumatized staffers.  There is a certain amount of processing that all of them will need to go through to make their peace with what happened.  They will have to get to a point where they are willing to go back to work and not cower under their desks in fear.  That will be true no matter whether they perceive the shooter as a lone crazy person or as the inevitable outcome of a larger attitude and type of rhetoric.

What it will take to get them there, however, will be different.  If the shooter is a lone crazy person, then they need to come to terms with the fact, which we all know but don't think about, that there are crazy people out there and one of them can come to get you at any moment.  They'll have to restore their sense that such events are, in the scheme of things, unlikely, in order for them to return to something like real functioning.

If the blame lies in pundits and politicians inciting people to violence, however, the game changes.  Now they must come to terms with the fact that there are people who are motivated to do something like this by rhetoric which is still going on.  Even if the incident makes everyone stop being inflammatory, the people who were so incendiary in the first place are still around, and their words are still out there.  They will actually have no idea at all how many of those people are still waiting in the wings.  Indeed, having survived an attack they may, perhaps correctly, believe they are more likely to be targeted by other such people.  And the blame they direct towards those responsible will get in the way of them accepting the fact that this happened in the first place.

I think most reasonable people hope that things calm down, at least as far as racist, homophobic, or violent actions go.  I hope we can all agree that none of that is good.  Throwing around blame for it may score political points, but unless it serves to get people to stop inciting the masses, drawing attention to it may, in the long run, just make everything worse.


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Naomi Zikmund-Fisher
is a clinical social worker, former school Principal and a Crisis Consultant for schools and community organizations. You can learn more about her at
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