Eliminationists on the March
After the horrific Arizona shooting in which six people were killed and Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was gravely wounded, we came close to civility in American politics, at least for a few days. Unfortunately, our public discourse is already returning to normal, as you can tell from reading this front-page post on the leading conservative blog RedState (HT: Pandagon).
Here at RedState, we too have drawn a line. We will not endorse any candidate who will not reject the judicial usurpation of Roe v. Wade and affirm that the unborn are no less entitled to a right to live simply because of their size or their physical location. Those who wish to write on the front page of RedState must make the same pledge. The reason for this is simple: once before, our nation was forced to repudiate the Supreme Court with mass bloodshed. We remain steadfast in our belief that this will not be necessary again, but only if those committed to justice do not waiver or compromise, and send a clear and unmistakable signal to their elected officials of what must be necessary to earn our support.
The Arizona shooting silenced right-wing eliminationists for a brief time, but they're already showing their faces in public again. Even if they're historically illiterate - the Civil War was started by the slaveholders, not by the abolitionists - it doesn't change the nature of this brutish, unsubtle threat to rise up in violent rebellion if they can't get the outcome they want through the democratic process, just the same way as Islamic fundamentalists seek to kill journalists and wage war on nations that won't agree to censor depictions of Mohammed.
The next logical question has to be, if they're anticipating "mass bloodshed" to overturn abortion rights, whom do they think should be killed? Doctors and nurses at family planning clinics? The patients of those clinics? Police officers and security guards who protect the clinics? Elected officials who vote for pro-choice policies? Ordinary citizens who vote for those politicians? I'm pro-choice; am I on their target list? Are you?
I don't think most of the posters on RedState have any stomach for actual violence, no matter what they say. Most of them are just empty braggarts, swaggering chest-beaters who want to show how strong and tough they are by playacting the role of heroic revolutionaries. But even if they don't intend to follow through on their own words, when poisonous rhetoric like this becomes normalized and common, there will inevitably be others who see that as permission. Horribly, that seems to be just what happened in the murder of Ugandan gay-rights advocate David Kato:
A prominent gay rights activist, whose photo was printed on the front page of a Ugandan newspaper that called for homosexuals to be hanged, was bludgeoned to death at his home after weeks of death threats and harassment...
I wrote last year about the bloody-handed American evangelicals who encouraged brutal anti-gay legislation in Uganda with apocalyptic rhetoric. If David Kato's murder was inspired in part by the rampant homophobia they sowed, as seems likely, they now have more blood on their hands. (See also this outstanding article on Dangerous Intersection about the atheist movement in Uganda.)
The depths of how bad Christian homophobia has gotten in Uganda can be seen in the unbelievable excuse offered by the editor of the newspaper:
After Wednesday's killing, Giles Muhame, the editor of Rolling Stone, condemned the murder and said the paper had not wanted gays to be attacked. "If he has been murdered, that's bad and we pray for his soul," Muhame told Reuters. "There has been a lot of crime, it may not be because he is gay. We want the government to hang people who promote homosexuality, not for the public to attack them. We said they should be hanged, not stoned or attacked."
Stories like these make me despair for Africa's lonely, brave freethinkers - people like Micheal Mpagi, or Leo Igwe, or Alain Mouanga - fighting heroically against a rising tide of savage, brutal theocrats aided and abetted by their American evangelical cousins. The darkness is so vast, and the light-carriers so few. Can we advocates of reason hope to stand against it and triumph?
Darkness Gathers Over Pakistan
"When we consider the founders of our nation - Jefferson, Washington, Samuel and John Adams, Madison and Monroe, Benjamin Franklin, Tom Paine and many others - we have before us a list of at least ten and maybe even dozens of great political leaders. They were well-educated. Products of the European Enlightenment, they were students of history. They knew human fallibility and weakness and corruptibility... They attempted to set a course for the United States into the far future - not so much by establishing laws as by setting limits on what kinds of laws could be passed.
The Constitution and its Bill of Rights have done remarkably well, constituting, despite human weaknesses, a machine able, more often than not, to correct its own trajectory.
At that time, there were only about two and a half million citizens of the United States. Today there are about a hundred times more. So if there were ten people of the caliber of Thomas Jefferson then, there ought to be 10 x 100 = 1,000 Thomas Jeffersons today.
Where are they?"
—Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan, The Demon-Haunted World. From Chapter 25, "Real Patriots Ask Questions", p.428.
That passage has stayed with me ever since I first read it. Where are the modern world's Thomas Jeffersons? Is it that the philosophical climate that once produced great men like this has changed, so that the people who could have been them never come into being, never take the right paths down the tree of contingency? Has the world grown more politically settled, so that there's less room for them to make their mark? Or has the world just grown so much bigger and more complex that their contributions are harder to notice?
I don't have the answer to this question, but it's hard for me not to think that a man who was one of those thousand, or someday could have been, was just murdered:
...Pakistan has become a country so scared of the inciters of religious violence that liberals stay silent for fear the assassins will come for them; a land so benighted Jamaat-e-Islami and other mobster theocrats can get away with blaming Taseer for his own death and treating his killer as a hero for enforcing the will of god.
The reason offered for Punjab governor Salman Taseer's murder was that he advocated the cause of Asia Bibi, a Christian woman sentenced to death for blasphemy. For fundamentalist death-worshippers, not only is any speech disagreeing with their religious beliefs a capital offense (although blasphemy accusations are often used to settle village vendettas), but defending someone accused of such, or calling for the reform of these barbaric statutes, is also worthy of death. As recently as a month ago, Taseer was scornful of the screaming maniacs calling for his blood:
Mr Taseer responded with characteristic insouciance. “It doesn’t bother me,” he said. “Who the hell are these illiterare maulvis to decide to whether i’m a Muslim or not?” Earlier, he tweeted: “Tomorrow mullahs r demonstrating against me...Thousands of beards screaming 4 my head.What a great feeling!”
Even in the glimmerings of a Twitter post, you begin to get the idea of what we lost with his death. Taseer was a brave man who believed in human rights; his killer was one of the violent, death-worshipping thugs who believe that the first, last and only response to people speaking their own minds or doing anything they dislike is to pick up a gun. Their guiding principle is that the rule of murder is the only law they need, and that they can kill their critics faster than they arise. The frightening thing is that they may not be wrong. The virus that infects their minds is spreading so fast; when Taseer's murderer was being brought to court, jubilant crowds cheered and showered him with flower petals.
It's tempting, so tempting, to take the eschatological route: to write off Pakistan as hopeless, a lost cause, and say to the few rational and enlightened human beings left there, "Come out of her, my people, that ye be not partakers of her sins, and that ye receive not of her plagues." But giving up and turning one's back on the world has never worked, and it won't work here. For one thing, there's still the question of Pakistan's nuclear weapons - one of the few innovations of science that the fundamentalists gladly accept in a land benighted by the absolute darkness of superstition - and, in any case, we're seeing the same mentality breaking out in America as well. In the war of reason against superstition and conscience against hate, we can't afford to surrender any ground, because it only emboldens the enemy to press harder and to advance further.
But the struggle is so hard, so wearying, and it seems as if our adversaries are inexhaustible. They have seemingly limitless reservoirs of hate to drive them, and in any case, they're so many and the guardians of reason are so few. If anything gives me the motivation to fight on despite all their evil and their barbarism, it's words like these from Taseer's son Shehrbano Taseer, who argues passionately that the cause of human rights in his country hasn't been silenced. For humanity's sake, for the sake of all we've accomplished and may yet accomplish, I hope he's right.
In the U.S., the cause of gay and lesbian rights has made major advances in the last few decades. Anti-discrimination laws are in wide effect, including a recently passed federal hate-crime law; marriage equality is already an established reality in several states; and despite setbacks, the now overwhelming tolerance and acceptance of gays and lesbians among younger generations heralds further progress in the future.
But in spite of these hopeful signs, the hatemongers and bigots of the religious right aren't giving up. As their cause slowly, but inexorably dries up at home, they're spreading their poisonous seed to foreign countries where it takes root in more welcoming soil.
Such is the state of affairs in the country of Uganda, where American evangelicals have long enjoyed a disproportionate degree of influence over the government. Homosexuality was already illegal in Uganda and has been for a long time, but Ugandan religious conservatives have learned from their American counterparts that even an oppressed and politically powerless group can easily be depicted as a menacing enemy in propaganda campaigns intended to stir up fear and hate among their followers. Just such a campaign has led to a proposed "Anti-Homosexuality Bill", which threatens to open the floodgates for the state-sanctioned mass murder of gay and lesbian people.
As previously discussed on Daylight Atheism, this bill would imprison homosexuals for life, and in some cases, would establish a crime of "aggravated homosexuality", which is punishable by death. But what I haven't discussed as much is the shockingly large role that American evangelicals played, both in the propaganda campaign that led up to it, as well as in the actual drafting of the bill itself. An article from the New York Times from earlier this month has the details, including the names of several key figures:
Scott Lively, a missionary who has written several books against homosexuality, including "7 Steps to Recruit-Proof Your Child"; Caleb Lee Brundidge, a self-described former gay man who leads "healing seminars"; and Don Schmierer, a board member of Exodus International, whose mission is "mobilizing the body of Christ to minister grace and truth to a world impacted by homosexuality"...
As the article explains, these missionaries visited Uganda in March 2009, giving a series of talks about how "the gay movement is an evil institution" which seeks to prey on boys, eliminate marriage and replace it with "a culture of sexual promiscuity". And just a month later, a Ugandan politician introduced the bill, which threatens to punish gays and lesbians with death.
Naturally, these American evangelicals claim they never wanted this outcome and profess shock that anyone could have misconstrued them in this way. But before Western media picked up on it, they were far less reticent:
But the Ugandan organizers of the conference admit helping draft the bill, and Mr. Lively has acknowledged meeting with Ugandan lawmakers to discuss it. He even wrote on his blog in March that someone had likened their campaign to "a nuclear bomb against the gay agenda in Uganda."
Whether Lively and the others knew specifically about the death penalty provision is uncertain - but to claim that they were entirely ignorant of what the government was planning is a claim that strains credulity.
In the face of Western threats to withdraw millions of foreign aid, the Ugandan government has backed down slightly - offering to change the death penalty provision to life imprisonment, as if that was an improvement - but whether the bill will pass, and what its final form will be, are still very much open questions. A hint of the attitude that still prevails comes from the Ugandan minister of ethics and integrity, who recently said, "Homosexuals can forget about human rights."
If this bill passes, the evangelicals who played a role in its creation will have bloody hands. All their pious pleas of naivete and innocence cannot change what their actions have wrought. They chose to travel to an extremely anti-gay country and try to whip the populace up into a frenzy of hatred and fear. And they profess shock at the outcome, but they shouldn't be surprised: all that's happened is that the Ugandan government has taken them at their word and proposed a policy that's the logical conclusion of their starting premises.
How else did they expect the government to react to claims, like these ones made by Lively, that the gay movement is raping and preying on children, that they're recruiting and bribing young boys to engage in sexual relationships with older men, that they're importing pornography "to weaken the moral fiber of the people", that they want to abolish marriage and replace it with a culture that embraces "sexual anarchy"? They've systematically portrayed gays and lesbians as evil deviants defying the law and engaging in a malevolent conspiracy to destroy Ugandan society. Did they really think the Ugandan government would do nothing more than build some Christian therapy centers?
To be absolutely fair, I don't doubt that Lively and the others are sincere when they claim they weren't seeking the execution of homosexuals. It's just that their brand of shrill, hysterical rhetoric is what they're accustomed to using; in America, it often gets them their way. But in America, this intemperate language is counterbalanced by a strong feminist movement and an effective system of constitutional rights. In Uganda, neither of those things exist; and again, the Ugandan government didn't treat their speeches as rally-the-troops political posturing, as American politicians and media usually do. Instead, they treated them as literal truth and acted accordingly. This potential theocratic horror is the result.
But this outcome was completely predictable, which is why the American evangelicals will have bloody hands if this bill does pass. If they haven't acted with malice aforethought, they've shown reckless indifference at the very least. Like the right-wing pundits whose deranged rhetoric pushes some of their more unstable followers over the edge, they will bear moral responsibility for whatever may result. (A little more credit, but only a very little, goes to Rick Warren, who after weeks of silence and an onslaught of bad press was finally shamed into offering a grudging condemnation of the bill.)
So, the next time the gay-bashing evangelicals claim to know what's best - the next time they claim to have moral authority over the rest of us - remember this moment. Remember their bloody hands. Remember their guilt and their responsibility. They'd clearly love for this whole sordid story to be forgotten. That's an opportunity we should be certain to deny them.
Theocratic Horror in Uganda
Back in January, I alluded briefly to the events in Uganda, where Christian abstinence-only programs have reversed the success of comprehensive sex ed and led to a rise in HIV infection rates. At the time, I mentioned Martin Ssempa, a pastor in the country's booming Pentecostal Christian movement, and his involvement in a campaign to criminalize homosexuality.
But this news has taken an even more ominous turn. Homosexuality was already illegal in Uganda, but a bill currently being discussed in that country's Parliament - and staunchly advocated by Ssempa and other Ugandan religious leaders - is even more draconian than the country's current repressive laws.
Under the bill, a person who was convicted of gay sex would receive life imprisonment. But if that person was found to be HIV-positive, this would result in a charge of "aggravated homosexuality", which carries the death penalty. Equally horribly, a person who was merely aware of homosexual activity but failed to report it to the police within 24 hours would themselves face a prison term - an extraordinarily evil measure that seems designed to deny gays and lesbians the right of shelter even among their own family and friends. Advocating for any increased rights for gays and lesbians, which would presumably include advocating a rollback of this bill, would also result in imprisonment.
This story is directly relevant to American readers because Uganda, in many ways, is the darling and the success story of the American religious right. As Kathryn Joyce explains in a Religion Dispatches interview with Rev. Kapya Kaoma, American evangelicals have been exporting their brand of conservative, homophobic culture-war politics to Africa for some time, and have had direct access to government officials in many African countries. (See also this commentary by Michelle Goldberg.)
Rick Warren in particular is held in high esteem there, and Martin Ssempa, the man who's pushing for the mass execution of homosexuals, is a friend and protege of Warren's. He's made multiple appearances at Warren's Saddleback Church in the past. And most shockingly, while Warren claims to have severed ties with Ssempa, he initially refused to denounce this proposed law! As Lisa Miller of Newsweek notes:
But Warren won't go so far as to condemn the legislation itself. A request for a broader reaction to the proposed Ugandan antihomosexual laws generated this response: "The fundamental dignity of every person, our right to be free, and the freedom to make moral choices are gifts endowed by God, our creator. However, it is not my personal calling as a pastor in America to comment or interfere in the political process of other nations."
When Warren was pressed on this point, his second response was to post a petulant reply to Twitter, claiming that because no one ever says anything about Christians being martyred for their faith, he shouldn't have to care about legislation that would kill gays and lesbians. The fact that one of the backers of this legislation was his protege is something that he doesn't seem to feel any guilt or moral responsibility at all for.
After several weeks of solid negative coverage, Warren finally issued a condemnation of the bill. Yet, as Archy points out, most of his stated reasons boil down to a claim that it would make the church's mission more difficult, and he tries to dodge some inconvenient connections between himself and influential figures of the Ugandan government (see also). In the end, Warren did the right thing - but only just barely, and again, it's extremely telling how much heat he had to take before he could be shamed into speaking out.
The theocratic terror state proposed in Uganda is the logical endpoint of the religious right's anti-gay agenda and its inflammatory, homophobic rhetoric. Having nurtured and fostered this movement for so long, it's much too late for them to wash their hands clean of it now. If they had any conscience, they would recognize the horrible evil they've created and would repent and devote themselves to opposing this bill before it comes to pass. But instead, their response has been noncommittal, tepid, even mildly supportive. That speaks worlds about what their true intentions are, what they hope to do in Uganda, and what they would do in America and the rest of the world if they have the chance.
The Republicans' Descent into Delusion
I don't usually post on purely political issues, but this one has become impossible to ignore. In the last few weeks, the American right has worked itself into a fever pitch of insanity over the prospect of healthcare reform.
If you've been watching the news, you've seen the shouting, raging protestors disrupting town-hall meetings, screaming at their representatives about how the healthcare bill is tyranny and fascism. These people are almost loud enough to drown out all other debate over health care. And their concerns, almost without exception, are pure, undiluted insanity. Take this right-wing protestor (who was subsequently invited on Fox News, naturally) to spout blithering hysteria about how President Obama is "sentencing our families to death" by trying to get a bill passed that would cover the uninsured.
Until a few weeks ago, I would have thought claims like this were too absurd to need refutation. But it's not just random nutjobs who are saying these things: the very leaders of the Republican party, its spokespeople and elected officials, have thrown their weight behind them. Whether it's Sarah Palin making ludicrous claims about "death panels", or former House Speaker Newt Gingrich suggesting that health care reform would lead to mandatory euthanasia, or U.S. Representative Virginia Foxx saying on the floor of Congress itself that the healthcare bill would result in "seniors... being put to death", or Senator Chuck Grassley saying that the government would "pull the plug on Grandma", the Republican Party as an entity has fully committed itself, with every outward indicator of sincerity, to defending these delusional lies. And the media, which can be relied upon to reduce every political debate to a he-said-she-said collision of talking heads, has dutifully given airtime to these claims as though they were serious and thoughtful arguments, rather than the ravings of maniacs.
The flood of brazen lies and hysterical fearmongering is the latest symptom of the sickness that's taken the Republican Party. It first manifested itself in the "birther" movement, the right-wing conspiracy theorists who insist in the face of all evidence that Barack Obama was not born in America. Now it's reappeared in the form of the "deathers", who took a single provision in the healthcare bill making provisions for voluntary end-of-life care directives (a provision that was introduced by a Republican senator), and somehow decided it meant that President Obama was planning to institute mandatory euthanasia on a massive scale.
As I said, this would sound too crazy to need refuting, if it hadn't become the sole focus of the frothing mob that the conservative movement has become. I'm aware that this kind of craziness has always been an undercurrent in American politics. But never, to my knowledge, has the tinfoil-hat-and-black-helicopter brigade gotten control of one of America's major political parties. (Along the same lines, Steve Benen has an insightful post on the motivations of the various groups that oppose reform.)
The raving fury and willful denial of reality that has the GOP in its thrall should be familiar to every reader of this blog. These are the same traits that are always seen in doomsday religious cults, the kind that are convinced the whole world is out to get them and everyone who's not part of the cult is an agent of the evil conspiracy. One could well argue that the virulent strain of Christianism that's taken root in the Republican Party, a religious sect already especially prone to such delusions, has accelerated the party's slide.
The most important lesson that liberals and progressives need to learn here is that there's no point trying to appease people who engage in this sort of behavior. They don't come to the table in good faith; they don't want to negotiate; their only goal is to obstruct and destroy.
President Obama was elected on a promise of bipartisanship and consensus-building, and I don't expect him to change that philosophy. Nor do I want a mirror image of the totalitarian behavior of the last administration, which sought to suppress any opinion contrary to its own. But I do hope that elected Democrats will see the futility of trying to bargain with Republicans who promote fear and hysteria, and consciously make an effort to shut them out in favor of the increasingly few reasonable conservatives remaining. If we're going to extend health care to the millions of uninsured Americans, pass a carbon cap-and-trade bill, reform our nation's energy policy, or achieve any other major progressive goal, the doomsday-cult conservative shriekers need to be marginalized and pushed to the lunatic fringes where they belong.
The Murder of Dr. George Tiller
If you've been following the news, you already know that Dr. George Tiller, one of only a handful of doctors left in the United States who perform late-term abortions, was murdered this week. A suspect, Scott Roeder, is already in custody.
Since the election of Barack Obama, there's been a noticeable upsurge in right-wing terrorism. This frightening trend tracks the evolution of the American right in general, which is becoming smaller, more insular, and more ideologically rigid, and its language more violent and more extreme. I don't think it's a stretch to say that their recent string of political defeats have caused some among the fringes to believe that the only way to achieve their goals is through violence.
Late-term abortion is never performed on a whim. The only time such abortions are performed is when the fetus has severe abnormalities incompatible with life, or when the woman develops a life-threatening complication, such as preeclampsia, and terminating the pregnancy is the only way to save her. But even these limited exceptions are too much for anti-choice Christian terrorists. It was for these acts - for his compassion in saving the lives of women - that Dr. Tiller was murdered.
Although there's no evidence that the alleged killer wasn't acting alone, there's abundant evidence that the crime was inspired by the hateful, poisonous, and inflammatory language that pours in a steady stream from the anti-choice religious right. Exhibit A is Bill O'Reilly, who repeatedly denounced Dr. Tiller on his show as "Tiller the Baby Killer" and said he "destroys fetuses for just about any reason right up until the birth date for $5,000" (source). If this were true, Dr. Tiller would have been breaking the law in Kansas, which, like other states, bans abortion past the point of viability except in the case of severe fetal deformity or to save the life of the mother. In other words, O'Reilly was accusing Tiller of committing a crime, which meets the legal definition of defamation if he cannot prove his claim to be true.
Even if Dr. Tiller's murderer acted alone, he isn't the only one who's been inspired to do so by right-wing rhetoric. In addition to those in the link on Christian terrorism cited earlier, there's also Paul Evans, who was sentenced to forty years in prison for leaving a nail bomb in the parking lot of the Austin Women's Health Center, and Cheryl Sullenger, who served two years in prison in the 1980s for planning to bomb a California clinic. Significantly, Sullenger is now Operation Rescue's senior policy advisor, and her phone number was found in Roeder's car - suggesting that the mainstream anti-choice movement, even if it does not openly call for violence, is quite willing to associate with and embrace those who have committed violent acts in the past.
This isn't the first time we've seen this pattern, and it won't be the last: right-wing pundits continually spew hate rhetoric against their political adversaries, and then piously wash their hands of blood when the inevitable occurs and some violent lunatic decides to take those words to their logical conclusion. It's vital for atheists and progressives to realize that we are all potential targets of this bloodthirsty madness. If the murder of Dr. Tiller has any lesson, it's that we must stand up to defend the human rights that are still under siege from fanatics. One way to begin is to make a donation to Planned Parenthood today in Dr. Tiller's memory.
The Sewers of Hate
Last week, James Adkisson was sentenced to life in prison. Adkisson was the right-wing terrorist who went on an armed rampage against the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist church in Knoxville last July, killing two parishioners, Greg McKendry and Linda Kraeger. He had intended to kill many more, but the people of the congregation, showing uncommon courage and heroism, swiftly subdued and disarmed him and held him until the police arrived.
Adkisson's manifesto has just been released (HT: Orcinus), a four-page handwritten document which he had intended to be a suicide note. His plan was to murder as many people as possible, then wait to be killed by arriving police. Thanks to the bravery of the UU congregation, he'll instead be spending the rest of his life in prison - a far more appropriate fate, in my opinion, and one that will force him to come to terms with what he did rather than taking the coward's exit of suicide.
In his manifesto, Adkisson explains why he committed these murders. The document is a glimpse into the deepest, darkest fringes of the right-wing mind, a worldview consumed by unrelenting hatred and a desire to inflict as much pain as possible on those he views as his enemies:
The worst problem America faces today is liberalism. They have dumbed down education, they have defined deviancy down. Liberals have attacked every major institution that made America great. From the Boy Scouts to the military, from education to religion... Liberals are evil, they embrace the tenets of Karl Marx, they're Marxist, socialist, communists.
...It takes a warped mind to hate America. It makes me so angry! I can't live with it anymore!
...Liberals are a pest like termites. Millions of them. Each little bite contributes to the downfall of this great nation. The only way we can rid ourselves of this evil is to kill them in the streets. Kill them where they gather.
This murderous mentality is an outgrowth of everything that the American right, as a movement, has spent the past several decades cultivating. One can draw a straight line from political operatives like Lee Atwater and his racist "Southern Strategy" or Newt Gingrich's 1996 memo urging Republicans to use words like "corrupt", "sick", "radical" and "traitor" to describe their political opponents, to popular conservative pundits who write books with titles like Treason: Liberal Treachery from the Cold War to the War on Terrorism (Ann Coulter), Deliver Us From Evil: Defeating Terrorism, Despotism, and Liberalism (Sean Hannity), and The Enemy Within: Saving America from the Liberal Assault on Our Schools, Faith, and Military (Michael Savage), to internet columnists who proclaim in absolute seriousness that one-half of the American population is composed of traitors and subversives. And from there, all this accumulated anger and hate trickles down into the right-wing sewers. It was such a sewer that birthed James Adkisson and filled his mind with the venom that motivated his deeds.
This hatred is not an aberration, but the stock in trade of the American right wing, which has become obsessed with the personal destruction of its enemies. The hate isn't confined to a few fringe cranks and lunatics, but is spewed out daily from their most popular and influential think tanks, spokespeople, and political leaders. And when their violent, eliminationist rhetoric becomes so pervasive - even when conservative leaders accompany it with wink-and-nudge disclaimers that they don't really mean for anyone to commit violent acts, of course not - a few unstable people are bound to be tipped over the edge into murderous insanity, and rampages like Adkisson's are the inevitable, foreseeable result. In a very real sense, the leaders of the conservative movement bear partial responsibility for this horror, and the blood of the dead is on their hands.
In a rational world, this event should have been the catalyst for the right-wing movement to realize what they have created and step back from the abyss. But if the past eight years have shown anything, it's that introspection is not their strong suit. Many sane conservatives have already fled; as for the rest, they may be too deeply invested in their hate to give it up now. Worse, now that the Republicans are out of power, the rage and frustration among their supporters will only increase. Though I very much hope I'm wrong, I would not be surprised if, over the next few years, the killing in Knoxville turns out to be only the first.
The Religious Right Hates America
Via Talking Points Memo, I've come across a story I still find almost unbelievable. It happened at the "Values Voter" debate for Republican presidential candidates that took place last week in Fort Lauderdale.
This event was skipped by the major candidates, Rudolph Giuliani, Fred Thompson, John McCain and Mitt Romney, which left seven minor candidates who spent the evening attempting to one-up each other in competing for the Republican base. If you, readers, have ever wondered about the roughly 25% of Americans who still support George W. Bush, look no further: this debate provided a raw glimpse into the furious, fanatic heart of what remains of the party and its distorted carnival-funhouse-mirror worldview. Inflammatory anti-Islam rhetoric, anti-gay rhetoric, denunciations of the judiciary, and calls for constitutional amendments to ban abortion and gay marriage were the order of the night. Several of the candidates, in wording more suitable for a church revival meeting than a political debate, spoke at length of how they converted to Christianity and how much they adore Jesus.
But these grotesque panderings were not the highlight of the evening, amazingly enough. That designation rightfully belongs to another event which took place at the opening of the debate, and fortunately, it was filmed. The video, posted at Right Wing Watch, simply has to be seen to be believed. In what is best described as a seething rant set to gospel music, the Church of God Choir from Springfield, Ohio sings an altered version of "God Bless America" - but rather than calling for God's favor, the rewritten song bitterly reviles America for all the sins it has supposedly committed, and denounces us as unworthy to receive God's blessing. I am not in any way making this up. Right Wing Watch has the video, and here are the lyrics:
Why should God bless America?
She's forgotten he exists
And has turned her back
On everything that made her what she is
Why should God stand beside her
Through the night with the light from his hand?
God have mercy on America
Forgive her sin and heal our land
The courts ruled prayer out of our schools
In June of '62
Told the children "you are your own God now
So you can make the rules"
O say can you see what that choice
Has cost us to this day
America, one nation under God, has gone astray
In '73 the Courts said we
Could take the unborn lives
The choice is yours don't worry now
It's not a wrong, it's your right
But just because they made it law
Does not change God's command
The most that we can hope for is
God's mercy on our land
The non-response to this event in the mainstream media showcases the shameful double standard of the country's pundit class. If a Democratic debate featured an altered version of "God Bless America" denouncing America for its misdeeds, Republican spokesmen blast the party to high heaven on every media outlet in the land, and the chattering sycophants of the press would have a field day over how this proves that the Democrats are too radical and extremist to be elected and how badly this will damage their political fortunes in 2008. Instead, from the conventional media, there has been silence. This does not excuse the Democrats for their own lack of fortitude in standing up to George W. Bush so far despite an enormous popular mandate, but it does show how progressive politicians must fight an uphill battle in a media landscape that is still strongly tilted against them.
This also shows that the religious right, for all their phony claims of patriotism, does not like or admire America at all. The only thing they desire is an America obedient to their beliefs and ideals, a country that has become a right-wing Christian theocracy with themselves as the rulers - one where women's bodies are the property of the state, where gays and nonbelievers are second-class citizens by law, and where the government draws up mandatory religious exercises for schoolchildren and other captive audiences. If they cannot have this, they angrily reject and attack the nation as a whole; their affection for America is solely a function of whether it bows to their demands. If it will not, the religious right in all its arrogance has no hesitation in threatening all the rest of us with divine retribution from their angry, mythical god.
Some Words on Exploiting Tragedy
In the wake of the recent horrible tragedy at Virginia Tech, where a mentally disturbed student named Cho-Seung Hui murdered 27 students and five faculty members before taking his own life, a shocked nation has struggled to understand. There has been agonized debate over what could have caused this young man to commit such a horrific act of violence - whether it was due to persistent harassment and social ostracism which he suffered, or whether it was mental illness, or some combination of both. Could this have been prevented if only we had reached out to him, tried harder to help him? Or was he merely a human time bomb, foreordained to explode eventually no matter what anyone else said or did? Can a person freely choose to do such a thing, a human being whose motives can be analyzed and understood, or was this simply an eruption of pure evil, an inexplicable and senseless cosmic occurrence from which we can learn nothing?
No answers have been found to these questions, and none may ever be found. For now, there is nothing to do but mourn our losses, offer what consolation we can to the survivors who now have holes in their lives that can never truly be mended, and vow to remember the heroism of those whose selfless actions helped others to escape, often at the cost of their own lives. One such was Professor Liviu Librescu, a survivor of the Holocaust and persecution by Nicolae Ceausescu's Communist regime, who was killed after holding the door to his classroom shut, giving his students time to escape through the windows. That a life marked by such endurance, such resilience in the face of far greater evils, should have ended in this way adds to the sick sense that this was not meant to be.
For all that we have seen horrors like this before, every time we find ourselves as ill-equipped to handle it as if it were the first time, and understandably so. Neither school administrators, nor teachers, nor students do their jobs thinking that an event like this may happen, because who could live their life with such unlikely and catastrophic scenarios constantly on their minds? We do not prepare because we cannot prepare. Instead, we focus on the daily minutiae of life - writing budgets, grading papers, doing classwork - and trust that we personally will never be placed in such danger. But a tragedy like this shatters the steady rhythm of our lives, like a meteor that smashes through the walls of normality we build up around ourselves and lets a vast and terrible light from outside pour in.
What can a humanist do in tragedies like this? There is very little that anyone can do, but what little we can, we should offer without hesitation. Though words of sympathy and compassion are a poor balm for those bathed in grief, we should give them. If possible, we should donate to funds set up for funeral expenses and other aspects of the tragedy. In a spirit of free inquiry, we should support the work of the reviewers empowered to find the cause of this event and determine if others like it can be prevented. These are the normal human responses to disaster, which is precisely the point.
However, not all have taken this road. Even as the wounds of grief are still raw, there are some callous and reprehensible individuals on the religious right who thought nothing of exploiting this tragedy as a crass prop, using it to promote their own political beliefs and tarnish groups whom they dislike with the taint of guilt by association.
On the very day of the massacre, before anything was known about the killer's identity, right-wing pundit Debbie Schlussel speculated that he was probably a Pakistani Muslim (source). When the killer's identity and South Korean nationality became known, Schlussel then seamlessly shifted to blaming America's immigration laws, saying that we need to stop "letting in so many foreign students".
But even worse was the utterly contemptible Dinesh D'Souza. D'Souza did not go quite so far as to blame atheism for this tragedy, but he did assert without shame that atheists have no reason to condemn such events and did not do so:
Notice something interesting about the aftermath of the Virginia Tech shootings? Atheists are nowhere to be found.
For the record, this is completely wrong. Here's one.
For scientific atheists like Dawkins, Cho's shooting of all those people can be understood in this way - molecules acting upon molecules.
Truly, I am sick and tired of being accused of lacking a belief in goodness and evil because I am an atheist. Has it ever occurred to any religious apologist that they are the only ones saying that atheism makes this claim? No atheist I have ever met, known or heard of has ever said anything like this or anything close to it. It is the lowest depths of mendacity for apologists like this to continue bandying about the lie that atheism denies morality, when all the actual atheists are saying completely the opposite.
Even worse, for all D'Souza argues that atheism offers no solace in times of tragedy, his explanation is far more appalling: God stood by and allowed the murder of thirty-two innocent people to coerce others into believing in him!
But perhaps God's purpose in the world (I am only thinking aloud here) is to draw his creatures to him. And you have to admit that tragedies like this one at Virginia Tech help to do that!
In a similar vein, other apologists and proselytizers have argued that the way to prevent these tragedies is to install their preferred vision of theocracy. Rod Parsley wrote that, "Choosing a world view that excludes God and disregards the value of human life makes the unforgettable scenes from Virginia Tech possible." Rush Limbaugh speculated on how "there needs to be more religion and prayer at our universities". And creationist Grady McMurtry claimed that Cho's massacre was inspired by schools teaching evolution.
The shamelessness and hypocrisy of these people is beyond compare. To promote their own bigoted and small-minded worldviews, they literally accuse their opponents of every crime in the world, without needing or presenting a shred of supporting fact. In their own minds, the twisted reasoning that has led them to conclude that teaching evolution or being an atheist "should" cause people to behave immorally makes them feel comfortable with asserting that people who actually commit atrocities must be motivated by these things. Not only is this stunningly dishonest, it is the height of arrogance to assert that one's own cartoon-simplistic sketch of the world so perfectly describes the cause of every event that it can be projected outward without hesitation or need of evidence.
This is not the first time members of the religious right have used horrible tragedies to further an ideological agenda. After the 1999 shootings at Columbine High School, Republican U.S. Representative Tom DeLay, later to become House Majority Leader, wasted no time in blaming that event on the teaching of evolution in schools (source):
Our school systems teach the children that they are nothing but glorified apes who are evolutionized out of some primordial soup.
Answers in Genesis' president, Ken Ham, echoed and praised DeLay's comments, blaming school violence on the failure to teach young-earth creationism in science classes (source):
Until our nation allows God to be the absolute authority, and accepts the Bible as truth (beginning with its teaching of the fall in Genesis), then violence, suicide, murder, and all manner of evil will continue to proliferate in our school systems.
However, in this case, we need not rely on the fevered imaginings of D'Souza, Parsley, Limbaugh, McMurtry or any of the others. We have Cho's final statement - a chilling video of hate he made soon before the attacks - in which he describes why he did what he did:
"Thanks to you, I die like Jesus Christ, to inspire generations of the weak and the defenseless people."
..."Do you know what it feels like to be humiliated and be impaled upon a cross and left to bleed to death for your amusement?"
Predictably, the self-satisfied religious right pundits have fallen silent rather than address this new evidence. When reality fails to prop up their delusions, evasion is their only response. But I will not evade it. Does this prove, by their distorted logic, that Christianity was responsible for this massacre? Should we urge less prayer and less faith in schools, to prevent tragedies like this from happening again?
Obviously not: this was the act of a lone disturbed individual, and no single reason can wholly explain it, nor should his own self-serving rationalizations be believed uncritically. For the same reason, we should be cautious and reluctant in the extreme, as many among the religious right are not, to claim this tragedy for any particular set of political views. In this dark hour, what is most important is comforting each other, not crying, "I told you so!" to everyone nearby. Those pundits who trumpet the evil act of a sick and disturbed young man as proof of their own views, in reality, prove nothing but the painfully shallow and circumscribed limits of their own compassion.