A Tale of Two Gunmen

A Tale of Two Gunmen

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The storylines are strikingly similar.

A moderate centrist politician who had taken some controversial stances is gunned down in broad daylight. The gunman is caught.

One happened in Arizona. The other, just a few days earlier, in Pakistan.

The parallels are striking, surely, but so are the differences.

In Arizona, the assailant is the crazy guy, the loner, the anti-social, the one everyone is quick to disown. The sigh of relief is that he acted alone.

In Pakistan, the assassin of Punjab governor Salmaan Taseer immediately becomes proof of something systemic. Malik Mumtaz Qadri is just its apocalyptic messenger leaving behind a trail of guns and rose petals.

Qadri proves to American media that something is rotten in the state of Pakistan. But Jared Lee Loughner is cast as just a rotten apple. He, like Timothy McVeigh, exists in isolation, the aberration to the American story, even though that story is historically rife with gun-slinging vigilantes, cowboys and bank robbers who are valorized precisely because they took on the government.

When I read the headline this weekend in the New York Times – “An Assassin's Long Reach,” I actually thought it was about Arizona. But, it was really about the assassination of Salman Taseer in Pakistan.

Enough people obviously made that same mistake. Next day on the website the headline had changed. It read “A Pakistani Assassin’s Long Reach.”

The fact is, in America, the Jared Lee Loughners don’t have a long reach. They must exist in isolation, burning balls of fire, streaking through our media like a comet. But, they cannot be part of any constellation of violence because we live in that constellation. Our house would be on fire.

Now, if Loughner had been Mexican American, it would have immediately been seized on as something systemic, not an isolated act of a mentally-disturbed person. The groups that have succeeded in squashing ethnic studies in Arizona, would triumphantly say that ethnic studies bred just that kind of violent ethnic pride, Aztlan by any force necessary. It would not matter if the gunman had been just as paranoid, mentally unstable and read Ayn Rand and the Communist Manifesto. Ban Chicano studies countrywide would be the refrain.

The reaction in some quarters of Pakistan has been shocking to many here – the showers of rose petals, so eerily reminiscent of what Dick Cheney promised would greet the Americans in Iraq.

In the United States, all sides were just quick to disclaim any responsibility that they might have fanned the rhetoric though Roger Ailes, president of Fox News, apparently did tell Russell Simmons he’d “told all of our guys, shut up, tone it down, make your argument intellectually.” But, in most parts, they were instead busy scrubbing the Internet for all traces of maps with representatives in the crosshairs.

Yet, the political discourse in the United States is just as vicious and violent. There are enough people who secretly (and not so secretly) say, “They had it coming” when the other side goes down – whether it’s an abortion provider or an undocumented migrant or a politician. Shirley Phelps-Roger of the notorious funeral-picketing Westboro Baptist Church already told the media “God sent the shooter” since Gabrielle Giffords was one of the “rotten rebels” destroying the country.  The health care town halls not so long ago showed that the Mecca of vitriol is not just in Tucson, Arizona.

But the point is not whether in our gotcha politics the left can draw a straight line connecting Sarah Palin's target-practice maps to Giffords’ shooting. Or whether the right can claim that Loughner was a pot-smoking liberal.

The point is this thing of darkness: Can America claim it as her own?