The Political Rhetoric of Mass Murder

Two nights ago, Jon Stewart began The Daily Show with a blistering commentary on the disjunction between our willingness to expend untold resources and thousands of lives and even to compromise some of our core national values in order to prevent attacks by foreign terrorists and our unwillingness to entertain any meaningful discussion of, never mind any meaningful action on, the causes of gun violence in America or of domestic terrorism that is not identifiable as “Islamic.”

Then, on The Nightly Show, Larry Wilmore derided those Far Right political figures, in particular several of the candidates for the 2016 Republican nomination, who have been very determined to describe the Charleston mass murder as an attack on Christians, rather than as race murders, a hate crime, or an act of domestic terrorism.

Yesterday, the Cable News networks have framed some of the discussion of the Charleston massacre around these issues, but, for the most part, the commentators were very careful to frame the topics with reference to and clips from The Daily Show and The Nightly Show. So, to some degree, the discussion has been couched as a discussion of a “controversy” sparked by Jon Stewart’s and Larry Wilmore’s observations.

But I suppose that any discussion that moves beyond the very heartfelt but predictable and ultimately futile laments about yet another “terrible national tragedy” represents some progress.

Larry Wilmore stopped short of making this point, but it may be one of the darkest irony of our times that the idea that Christians are under relentless attack is actually part of the Far Right talking points that, taken in totality, have contributed to the paranoia, expressed in a hatred of the “other,” that seems to have been the main, twisted rationale for the Charleston murders.

Just to be clear, Christians have certainly been under violent attack in some other parts of the world, especially in those nations along the southern edge of the Sahara, where one of the terrible long-term consequences of colonialism has been that national boundaries have been laid across, rather than along, boundaries between ethnic groups that have historically been hostile to each other.

But, in the United States, the “attacks” amount to the increasing rejection by other Americans of some Fundamentalist Christian beliefs on such issues as gay marriage and contraception that have been reflected in legislation that applies to everyone. This rejection of such beliefs may seem like an “attack” to Fundamentalists, but no one is forcing them to deny their own beliefs. Other people are simply asserting their Constitutional right to hold differing beliefs without suffering economic or legal bias as a consequence.

Along these same lines, I want to emphasize that I am not blaming Christians, gun owners, or even politicians on the Far Right in any way for these particular killings. The killer himself is, legally, solely responsible for the murders. Moreover, I am in no state of heightened spiritual grace that entitles me to render any definitive judgments about who may bear any moral responsibility for what has led to or contributed to these or other horrific murders.

But I do wish to assert, without any qualifying conditions, that the rhetorical strategies that have been employed to radicalize part of the Far Right political base and that have been mainstreamed politically to prevent any meaningful discussion of just about any level of “gun control” are a national disgrace for which politicians ought to be held accountable electorally. And in the group that should be held accountable, I would include not just those who have been the most vociferous proponents of almost unlimited “gun rights” and the staunchest opponents of any type of “gun control,” but also those supposed “progressives” who have gutlessly avoided the issue. Their silence on the issue has, in its effect, amounted to acquiescence.

Indeed, it is not just that the “gun lobby” has been resistant to any discussion of any, even minimal level of gun control. Rather, they have also been expanding “gun rights” at a truly reckless pace so that in many states, guns can now be carried into what were previously regarded, almost universally, as spaces that ought to be gun-free zones—such as public parks and recreational spaces, bars, churches, schools, and college campuses.

The rhetoric of “gun rights” has superseded common sense, as well as the statistical evidence. The majority of gun-related killings are suicides, not murders, and the majority of murders are committed by family members or close acquaintances and not by strangers or predatory career criminals.

Mass murders are almost always spoken of as if they are complete aberrations to “normal” gun violence, but, if one considers the statistical evidence, they may actually represent just a very, very extreme version, projected outward, of the psychological derangement that actually cause most gun-related suicides and murders.

To me, the difference between a man who shoots his wife and children and then shoots himself and what has occurred in Charleston seems as much a matter of degree as anything else. Most of us could not conceive of a level of rage that would cause us to kill our own loved ones any more than we could conceive of a level of rage that would cause us to walk into a Bible study class and slaughter strangers.

So, when a “gun advocate” starts to argue about how stricter gun laws would not have prevented this mass murder or some other specific event, we should ask about all of the other gun-related deaths that are occurring on a daily basis in every part of this country and are not getting much, if any, media or political attention.

There are two other, very recent articles on these issues that I think are worth reading. The first has a much narrower focus than the second.

Written by Judd Legum and published by Nation of Change, the first article is titled “The Wildly Different Ways One Senator Responds To Terrorism: Boston Versus Charleston.” It is available at:

Written by Ana Marie Cox and published by the Daily Beast, the second article is titled: “Why the GOP Hates Talking about Hate: Conservatives Can’t Confront Racism in Charleston Shooting.” It is available at:


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