Blood Diamond

 

 

Responses to violence against government officials are perfect opportunities to recast the violence of the normal political process as peaceful, non-violent, productive, natural, and normal. Paul Ryan's response to the shooting of congresspeople engaged in baseball practice is a masterful example of the power of rhetoric to craft a world where there is only one possible response to the event, and that response reifies a world where politics, as they appear in material and social form, are the inevitable natural extension of oh-so-good-and-noble humanity. Such moves risk Burkean debunking. But Ryan, by "converting upwards" is able to transform the normal legal violence of the House of Representatives and the U.S. Government into the only possible oppositional stance toward violence that caring human beings can take. 

Examining the situation with some loose Burkean terms, we can see the scene and the event are perfect for Ryan's task. Arguably nothing is more perfectly American than Members of Congress practicing baseball at sunrise for an upcoming charity game. The shooter believed he was attacking corrupt elements of the government, eliminating a disease. By choosing this scene and event for his attack, he was obviously attacking America. Scene is an easy one for Ryan to use for his defense of House-based violence as healthy and normal, as opposed to shootouts on baseball diamonds. 

This is seen as not only a national site of amusement, but not a political scene at all - never mind that a former staffer of a congressman who is now an executive for Tyson Chicken was present at the practice. He certainly wasn't playing baseball. His presence suggests the "normal" operation of the political system, with "insider baseball" present at actual baseball without any sense of irony whatsoever. Ryan points us to a photo of Democrats praying as important for his thoughts today - and why not? The other "team" - literally and figuratively - has put aside its differences in order to support those who were attacked. It's just a game after all; there are more important considerations than politics/baseball here. 

The agent, another easy pitch across the plate for Ryan. The shooter, we were quickly told, was a rabid supporter of Sanders (who quickly denounced all violence within politics in a nested debunking move par excellence) as well as someone who turned to abuse as a problem-solving tool in his own life. Such a figure is unsympathetic, and clearly not a political radical, a critic of the system, or anything like that. As an opportunist, he believed that if the government would not "listen to reason" they were a problem and should be wrangled into submission. This agent is easily sub-human. Ryan uses this context in order to construct this as an attack on a family, something that we might be able to call the "national family" or "the family members that represent us." It is brilliant to gesture toward the agent's history as an abuser toward his family and this attack as automatically casting the congresspeople as "family." He strongly and persuasively suggests that the House is our family as well.

This is bleeding into purpose now, which Ryan calls "a test." The purpose of the attack was to test our basic humanity. Are we going to remain human, or strip that humanity away? This brilliant move begs the question of the presence of human caring within national politics, the House of Representatives, or the government: What would such caring look like? Would it be a bill? A rider? Does it leak out of the restrictive formal rules on debate? Ryan is persuasive though because he transcends all of that through the metaphor of "family." He also puts the congresspeople in league with those who might have suffered from a home invasion. A criminal barged into our home, attacked us, and wants us to respond with violence, or perhaps celebrate violence.

WARNING: This video contains disturbing footage. The audio of this video has been edited to remove disturbing language. An eyewitness captured cellphone video of the moments after a gunman began opening fire at a GOP congressional baseball practice in Alexandria, Va. ahead of tomorrow's Congressional Baseball Game. Courtesy: Noah Nathan/Facebook

Notice there is no discussion of the agency - a powerful rifle which the video of the shooting indicates - this is no normal hunting rifle. Not much discussion about the weapon has emerged beyond the predictable and over-simplistic smug "I told you so's" by the NPR liberal set. It is not to Ryan's advantage at all to discuss this as a shooting - it is an attack. It is a violent attack. In this chamber, we neither use violence, nor do we attack. These are anathema to the work done in Congress. The video captured by mobile phone linked above provides a very convincing account of the attack as being primarily about agency - about guns. The "brave" capitol police engage in a shootout with the perpetrator, and it sounds as if they are losing.

This weapon is a very powerful one and might raise questions about how it was obtained, how someone who had a history of violent behavior obtained it, and what sort of system supports such a combination of events. Instead of a speech about how we must forbid violent people from access to weapons (agent-agency) or how violent people are disturbed and require our sympathy and help (agent-purpose) we get an attack on a family that forwards the best of human feeling and thought (act-scene). All other considerations (agency, agent, etc) fall by the wayside - which allows Ryan and his colleagues conduct their own "smuggled in" violence by the normal, textual means of legislation. 

But Ryan's simplification into this as violence - pure and simple - is all he needs in order to convince us that we have been attacked, or that our family has been attacked. This is a test. Will we pass the test? Will we continue to hold on to our humanity?

Ryan says that nobody loses their humanity when they step into that chamber. A cursory view of American legislation might confirm that its a humanity-stripping chamber for others around the world. Perhaps it is the only safe spot in order to protect one's humanity. Perhaps they know what humanity should be?

Ryan does not really escape the problems of debunking here. If politics is the polar opposite of violence, that violence has no place in the political in any conditions (a sentiment supported by Bernie Sanders in his comments as well) then those who are not served by political discourse, or who perceive themselves excluded from political discourse, have a self-completing alternative: Violent action. This is rhetorically justified by the violent revolution this country cites as its founding moment. This is the inevitable price of smuggling in violence under another name while denouncing violence of one flavor as violence in toto. 

Ryan's debunking of violence opens up a very clear and distinctive spot for violence in politics, especially when laws and policies are violent - from subsidies to health care to military spending, we see Foucault was right, "Politics is war by other means." Without that admission, violence must be smuggled back into the House chamber under other terminology, further fueling a narrative of violent action. If the political system is violent but lies about that; if it won't listen; if it has no place for those who perceive this as the truth, they will happily don the jerseys of "team violence" and engage in acts like we saw yesterday. We have a "home grown terrorist" problem, as the liberals like to call it - but this problem is one of a rhetorical relationship to violence. We must come to terms with speech as violence, with politics as violence. Ryan bought us more time to delay this confrontation, or perhaps he made us all feel comfortable in the burning building. After all it's only a dry heat. Let's continue or work as a family to perpetuate the best humanity has to offer.