Weaponized half-truths: Violence and the consequences of partisan logic

By: Richard W. Sharp

What we don’t know can hurt us.

It has been nearly a week since a despicable act of violence was carried out by a white man with a history of domestic abuse, political anger, and a rifle, but out national debate is not addressing terrorism and the proper limits of the second amendment. Instead, we are focusing on secondary causes: political rhetoric and the limits of the first.

There are two political narratives in America, and no matter how hard reality tries to break the mold, we have a knack for forcing it to fit established story lines. The Virginia shooting could have been a moment to address mass shootings and terror, real and pressing dangers, but instead the political discourse has weaponized the incident, making it a tool for silencing dissent. The current administration’s proclivity for strongmen has been widely documented, and those role models have made no secret of their intent to define acceptable speech as they see fit.

How did we get to this point so quickly? Let’s start with the facts, then follow the course of the debate. Where were the cognitive leaps that led us away from the matter at hand and to what consequence? 

Just the facts

The debate

Tammany Hall
Circular logic in politics, 1891.

The official response was a swift and startling display of bipartisanship. Perhaps because the shooting personally affected them, the president and the party leaders quickly followed the well worn path of “thoughts and prayers” and “we may have our differences.” And the game went on.

A more influential reaction came from congressional representatives themselves. Some were present on the field, and all are part of the organization on which the shooter focused his anger and which he tried to change through violence. Many of the immediate reactions focused on guns in America.

  • Alabama Republican Mo Brooks, who was at the field during the shooting, said that it did not change his view of the Second Amendment.
    “[As] with any constitutional provision in the Bill of Rights, there are adverse aspects to each of those rights that we enjoy as people. And what we just saw here is one of the bad side effects of someone not exercising those rights properly. But we’re not going to get rid of freedom of speech because some people say some really ugly things  that hurt other people’s feelings.”
  • New York Republican Chris Collins promised that his gun is “going to be in my pocket from this day forward.”
  • Republican Paul Mitchell and Democrat Val Demings were together for a previously scheduled joint interview and contested the two traditional stances on gun violence.
    • Both established their qualifications to speak on the subject
      • Collins’ son is a police officer.
      • Demings was a police chief and represents the Orlando district where the Pulse nightclub shooting occurred.
    • Mitchell held that despite the District’s strong gun control laws, “the reality is the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.”
    • Demings responded that she is dedicated “to keep[ing] guns out of the hands of bad people who shouldn’t have them.”
    • In the end, they both agree that there are some people who should not have guns, and (Mitchell) “Even the debate won’t solve what happened today. It won’t solve what happened in Orlando. The reality is is we have to have that debate.”

These are the victims of the crime, and these are their immediate reactions to being the targets of violence. Rather than question the rationale behind the statements (who’s rationality could be held to account in the aftermath of violence?), let’s try to apply objectivity. Without applying weight to the arguments, yet, here are some points of agreement and positions of contention from those most closely affected.

  • There is a gun debate that needs to be had.
    • The right holds that the solution is more guns and fewer restrictions, a redistribution of the gun supply.
    • The left holds that the solution is fewer guns and more restrictions, a reduction of the total size of the gun supply.
    • Both hold that there are some people who should not have guns.
    • Both use “good guy/bad guy” framing.
    • Neither believes that progress can be made in the current political climate.

The story quickly started to shift as we began to learn more about the gunman: white, male, history of violence, history of strong anti-repubican views & Bernie supporter, asked if the players on the field were Republicans. Bernie responded swiftly, condemning the attack, but the reality of political incitement to violence has been constant theme of late, in particular regarding Trump’s rallies, his “second amendment people” statement, and the Guardian reporter attack. Smelling blood, the keepers of the right’s rage machine got hard to work and shifted the debate.

So while the victims of the crime started a discussion about guns, those who benefit from maintaining power structures rather than benefiting the public shifted the conversation.

Of our three facts, one was addressed and dismissed, while two were entirely lost in the mix:

National leaders have been largely silent on both counts. The FBI has been predictably cautious about calling this a terrorist act. 

Two additional killings this week, one in London and one here at home, show that the silence is an American quality. The UK, in stark contrast to the official US response, did not equivocate in reaction to this week’s attack on a Mosque, which left one victim dead. The government has already filed terrorism charges against the defendant, and the Prime Minister has called out Islamophobia as a form of extremism. Yet the same day, in Virginia, a young woman was killed walking home from her Mosque. There has been little notice, no recognition from the powers that be, and no statements of condemnation to label this act what it is.


Hasse logic diagram

In the face of a terrible act of violence, we have ignored our instincts. Rhetoric has twisted the question, turning us away from the difficult discussion that must be had to improve our welfare. We know that the rights enshrined in the Constitution are not absolute; you cannot cry, “Fire!” in a crowded theater and then appeal to the first amendment. Yet we have been turned away from a similar discussion over the second amendment with absolutist statements about Good Guys with Guns vs. Bad Guys with Guns.

The logic of this stance is not self-evident. For example, the Cold War produced a similar situation with nuclear weapons; we called them MAD. No one (except maybe the President) would seriously argue in 2017 that Mutually Assured Destruction is an acceptable solution. Nevertheless, we apply a narrative subjectivity to the second amendment debate, imbuing Good Guys with Guns with the ability to make better, faster decisions with greater accuracy than their adversaries in a way we never would if our twenty-first century minutemen were packing Minuteman IIIs.

So this week, as with the health issues of tobacco and the reality of climate change, instead of focusing on the heart of the matter at hand, recognizing the subtitles and difficulties inherent in living together peacefully, we have let the discussion be led by those specifically employed to not understand the issue

George Brunner is an actor, New Yorker, and incisive lay-philosopher. In response to outrage directed at Shakespeare in the Park’s Trump-themed Julius Caesar, and the subsequent withdrawal of sponsorship, he captured the moment perfectly:  “If the banks and the airlines think that the administration will punish them, they will withdraw their support. Otherwise they will be generous patrons of the arts. We live in a bullshit world.” 

While it would seem that all we can do is to throw up our hands and add lying politicians to the list right after death and taxes, we need to remember that words have power. The rhetoric of violence does promote and permit violence. We do need to take statements and the context in which they are made seriously. We do need to know the difference between the depiction of violence as refutation of violence and the incitement of the mob. We do need to know the difference between criticism and attack.


About The Author

Richard is a Seattle area data scientist who builds predictive models and the services that deliver them. He earned a PhD in Applied and Computational Math from Princeton University, and left academia for the dark side of science (industry) in 2010, following his wife to the land of flannel. Fan of coffee, beer, backpacking and puns. Enjoys a day on the lake fishing, and, better, cooking up the catch for a crowd.

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