The Politics of Personal Destruction

— Rabbi Carl Choper, President of the Interfaith Alliance of Pennyslvania

Many voices are being raised, expressing shock and dismay at the recent shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and several others in Arizona – and certainly those voices should be raised.  In addition to the horror of the act itself, physical violence is the greatest internal threat to any working democracy.  If people cannot feel safe voicing their opinions and participating in civic life then democracy ceases to work.  We cannot fully know the shooter’s motivation or frame of mind, but we all must acknowledge that this terrible act has been long in coming.

More after the jump.
It seems to me that societies change more likely in a step-by-step process than all at once.  I came to that realization as a teenager after listening to stories of my grandmother’s experiences in Germany in the 1930’s.  As she was telling me about an incident that happened in 1938, she mentioned in passing that she was pushing her daughter (my mother) in a baby carriage along the street because Jews were not allowed in the parks.  I interrupted her right there, asking her to explain what she meant.  “Of course, ” she said. “Jews were not allowed to walk in the parks.  Signs were posted at park entrances reading ‘No dogs or Jews.'”   It was at that moment that it occurred to me that a society was not likely to go from tolerance to oppression, or civility to violence,  without intermediate steps.  Therefore, we should always be alert to those intermediate steps.

I recall over a decade ago, in the late 1990’s that we began hearing the phrase “the politics of personal destruction.”  At the time, President Clinton was being demonized, investigated and excoriated for sexual misdeeds, and for many other allegations about which all investigators lost interest the moment he left the White House.  What stood out to many at the time was the viciousness of the ongoing attacks on the very person of the White House occupant (and his wife) throughout the eight years that the man William Jefferson Clinton was in office. It was noted at the time that his opponents seemed to be trying to destroy him personally as well as defeat him politically.

In the years since we have seen a continuation of this sort of personal demonization for political purposes.  Barack Obama is persistently portrayed as a liar and a fraud (for claiming to have been born in Hawaii), a foreign infidel (what is meant when he is called a Muslim) and a threat to the strength and moral fiber of the country (what is meant by those calling him a socialist).  All of this fed into the frenzy that was whipped up by his opponents, especially around the healthcare issue, that led to physical attacks upon congressional offices by the end of 2009.  Add to that the increased push in our society for universal gun access and we have a volatile mix.

To summarize this in terms of baby-steps, we as a society have watched our political system descend into character assassination by 1999, and then violent attacks upon property by 2009, and now acts of murderous violence in 2011.

Again, we may not know precisely the full motivation of the murderer.  But, if nothing else, this should serve as a warning to us all about the effects of those who would denigrate the humanity of their political opponents.

We must all pray for the well-being of Gabrielle Giffords and her family, and for all those others who have been killed, wounded or emotionally destroyed by this horrendous act.

We must also pray for our country.