By Steve Brawner
© 2017 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.
Many are asking if politics made the shooter crazy. That’s an important question. Another is, what is it doing to the rest of us?
Here’s what we know, as of Thursday morning. A man had lived a relatively normal life, even serving as a foster parent. There had been a few acts of violence and minor run-ins with the law, including one scary episode where he allegedly punched a woman in the face, pointed a gun at a neighbor and then hit him with the stock, but there’s plenty of evidence that he was sane. In recent years he’d become increasingly political and agitated, angrily obsessing over the injustices of a system he could not change. He posted political rants in Facebook’s echo chamber and joined a page pushing to “terminate” the Republican Party. He’d once practiced shooting his rifle outside his home, prompting a neighbor to call the sheriff. He moved to the Washington, D.C., area a few months ago, lived in a van, and frequented a bar where he would sit and drink beer with a creepy smile on his face. Then, on Wednesday, he took his rifle to a congressional baseball practice, calmly asked a congressman which party was practicing, thanked him for his answer, and then started shooting.
I started to write that he “snapped,” until my wife corrected me. No, she said. He made choice after choice after choice to fuel his anger until he’d crossed a line and there was no going back.
Most of us are not going to cross that line, or tiptoe anywhere near it. But we are making many of the same choices the shooter did. We obsess over societal forces we can’t change, that we don’t really understand, and that we’re not objective enough to define. We let our frustrations over these things bleed over into the parts of our lives that we can control, affecting our relationships with the people who matter. We seek shelter in our tribes and then adopt language that dehumanizes the outsiders, turning them first into caricatures and then, naturally, enemies. Political opponents are to be impeached, or locked up, or terminated.
The shooter and many of the rest of us are all marinating in those juices. We differ from him in that almost none of us are going to start shooting other people. But, like him, we can stop seeing them as human.
The American experiment is now almost a quarter of a millennium old. Its founding document, the Declaration of Independence, states that government exists to secure unalienable rights that include life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
Unfortunately, American democracy has evolved to the point that it often more deters happiness than defends it. A spirit of anger hangs over the air, unleashing the monster in one man and turning many of the rest of us into angry jerks.
Solutions? I wouldn’t have space to write them even if I knew what they were. But here are two that might help.
The first comes also from my wife, who’s taking somewhat of a news break after spending too much time worrying about the election last year, like many of the rest of us. She’s trying to refocus on real life and on the things she can influence. In a recent conversation, she said Americans should judge President Trump’s individual actions one at a time, rather than declaring him completely right or dismissing him as completely wrong, and that same standard should apply to all other elected officials as well.
That’s true. There are times to judge the totality of an elected official’s performance. They’re called elections, and there will be another one soon enough next May. Until then, let’s try to regain some objectivity – for our own sakes, if nothing else.
The other comes from Proverbs 22:24, which states, “Make no friendship with an angry man; and with a furious man thou shalt not go.”
That verse has two meanings. The obvious one is to avoid angry people.
The second is less obvious but just as important: Don’t be that angry friend. It’s the first bad choice from which a lot of worse ones can follow.