IT WAS "sickeningly familiar," wrote a reporter in one newspaper; it was "depressingly familiar," wrote a second in another newspaper; and a third -- and a fourth -- and a fifth -- and not only in newspapers, but of course on television. One thing that is indeed all too familar is this response. Six shots fired in two seconds from one gun are held to indicate a fearful pattern of political violence in the nation's life.
A political journalist of usually sound judgment wrote in The Washington Star: "Each time it is a reminder that political life in the United States can be transformed in an instant, any instant, from civility to barbarity, from a contest of ideas and philosophies and personalities to the most elemental brutality." They are eloquent words; they carry one along; they are unjustifiable.
Not all the violence in all the history of the United States has, even for an instant, transformed its political life from civility to barbarity. Its political contests have overcome, not been reduced to, the irruptions of elemental brutality.
"Just how much more of this tearing at the fabric of the nation," asked another journalist in The Washington Post, "can America endure without fundamentally changing the character of national life?" The answer of American history is that it could endure quite a lot more. It was also the answer given by American politicians and the American people on Monday afternoon and evening.
The nation in a trying moment displayed its continually impressive resources of calmness. Almost the only hasty act was to postpone the Oscars, presumably as an act of respect from the profession to its most distinquished member.
If we are to be sensible in this, there are two questions to discuss. One is the extent and character of violence as such in America. The other is whether there is a pattern of political violence. Let's take the second.
It is impossible for even the most ingenious mind to deduce a pattern of political violence from the assassinations and attempted assassinations of political figures in America in the past two decades. this is especially true of the attempts made against the lives of presidents and presidential candidates. Nothing links Lee Harvey Oswald to Sirhan Sirhan to Arthur Bremmer to Sarah Jane Moore to Lynette Fromme to John Warnock Hinckley Jr., except guns.
yif we are to adduce these to demonstrate a pattern of political violence, we must demonstrate that each of them was inspired by a political motive. It would not even be enough to prove that each had some madcap political scheme in his or her brain. If we are to speak of political violence, the political motive must exist in more than their minds, representing a more general attitude or discontent.
ythe madman who attempted to assassinate Queen Victoria in 1840 may have been distraught by republican notions of his own, distraught by republican notions of his own, but that did not make his action political.
But Archduke Ferdinand was assassinated in 1914 for political reaons, murdered by Serbian irredentists who had hatched their plot on Serbian soil. That is why their action began a war.
But even if we look further than assassinations and attempted assassinations, it is hard to demonstrate a tradition of political violence in America that is stronger than elsewhere, or more threatening to the fabric of its society or of its political life.
Political violence is not only more than individual behavior; it is also more than mere outbursts of collective behavior. Not every riot is a collective act of political violence. Political violence is intended to prevent or provoke change. White violence against blacks in the South in the 1960s was meant to prevent change; black violence against symbols of repression in the cities in the 1960s, to provoke change.
We can make one more distinction. Morris Janowitz describes the urban race riots in the period immediately after World War I as communal riots: "They represented white resistance to the population expansion of the ghetto. They erupted at the boundaries of teh black and white communities and involved attacks by whites on the black populations, often with the assistance of local law enforcement officials."
He describes the race riots of the 1960s as nearer to being political: "They represented black attacks against the symbols of white authority and power -- against white law officers and against economic establishments. the violence took place almost entirely within the black community."
Both these kinds of violence have been the common experience of all growing societies. there is nothing distinctively American in them, except insofar as they are racial, and that America is still very much growing.
Violence of these kinds may be spontaneous or concerted. But the mark of true political violence is that it is institutionalized. The violence of both organized strikers and managers in the past, for example, were institutionalized forms of political violence here and elsewhere.
So was the violence of rival miners' unions in Illinois in the 1930s when, according to one historian, they "used their knowledge of dynamite to blow each other to oblivion." So was the violence used by the railroads. So was the violence of the cattlemen and the sheep grazers. So was, and still potentially is, the violence of the disputes over water in the West . . . . So one could go on through the whole brawling history of America as it has made itself, and still the blood that has been spilled would be as a teaspoonful, compared with the buckets of it spilled by European nations as they once made themselves.
Even if we consider only the political assassinations in America in two centuries, we might put them beside the rather more bloody violence which attended the careers of political figures under the Plantagenets, and in the long bloody tussle in England which is charmingly known as the Wars of the Roses.
ybut political violence is most truly disturbing when it is institutionalized in the political life of the country in the form of a political party. The simple fact is that political violence in the United States has never produced a Communist Party, a National Socialist Party, a Fascist Party, a Falangist Party or any other like them which has seriously sought or held power.
Political violence here has never ended in an Auschwitz or a Gulag Archipelago.The internment of Japanese Americans in the 1940s was the mistaken and unnecessary reaction to a foreign war, which uprooted but did not kill or torture people. As for the treatment of the American Indians, it was less severe than what took place in Australia or New Zealand, where other English settlers went in the 18th century, and left far fewer traces of the Aborigine and the Maori. By not one single criterion can the record of political violence in America be judged worse than that in any other comparable societies.
What is disturbing about it here is its very lack of institutionalization. It is because it does not reduce the political life of the country to barbarity, it is because it does not tear at the fabric of the society, that it is so conspicuous and seems so inexplicable and threatening a phenomenon.If it were revolution, or class war, or religious fanaticism, or merciless colonels, or nationalism, it would be comprehensible.
There has been more political violence in the tiny island of Ireland in the past few years than in the whole expanse of America in the 1960s. Yet do we therefore say that the Irish society is barbarous?
It is because the political violence in America is so unsystematic, so uninstitutionalized in the political life of the country, that everyone tends to think that it tells of terrible lusts in the society as a whole.
There is indeed a streak of individualistic violence in the life of America. Its roots are in the individualism that is exalted in its life. Taking the law into one's own hands is an expression of what is otherwise a virtuous principle. The whole philosophy which lies behind the availability of handguns in America is based on the assumed right of the individual to protect himself.
It is not much of an extension of that principle, in a mind that is disjointed, to assume the right of the individual to get rid of a president. It seems that the only real explanation of Monday's tragedy is likely to be that a deranged man could have three guns confiscated one day in Nashville and two days later walk into a pawnshop in Dallas and buy two more.
What the gun lobby will not face is that, although anyone who seriously wanted a handgun would still be able to get one even under the strictest gun control, the number and range of people who would think of buying one would be much fewer if their sale were severely restricted.
Shortly after World War II in Britain, there was the famous Antiquis murder. Antiquis was a civilian who one day on the streets went to the help of a policeman. For his pains, he was killed. The tragedy created such an uproar in Britain that the government announced that no questions would be asked of any demobilized soldier who turned in any weapons he possessed to a police station.
Starting the next morning, the lines at the police stations all over the country were almost endless, and so it continued day after day. A people disarmed themselves at the end of a violent world war. What was disclosed was a habit of mind in even the males and the young who had just been trained to kill. America will not begin to cope with its violence until it begins to change a habit of mind by changing its laws.