Another lethal April, another failure to ask why.

Another lethal April, another failure to ask why.

Another lethal April, another failure to ask why.

The law, lawyers, and the court.
April 15 2009 6:33 PM

The Cruelest Month

Another lethal April, another failure to ask why.

Flags at half-staff in memory of slain Pittsburgh police officers. Click image to expand.
Flags at half-staff in memory of slain Pittsburgh police officers

April is the wing-nuttiest month—the month that draws out the paranoid, the delusional, and the copycats who revere them. Next week we will commemorate the 16th anniversary of the Waco standoff (76 dead); the 14th anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing (168 dead); and the 10th anniversary of the shootings at Columbine (13 dead). Tomorrow marks the second anniversary of the Virginia Tech massacre (32 dead). Each of these events connects to the next in a deliberate chain of attention-craving and terror. And binding them all together is the slew of smaller copycat killings we've nearly forgotten: in Taber, Canada (1 dead); in Santee, Calif. (2 dead); at the Red Lake Chippewa Reservation in Minnesota (10 dead); and in Montreal, Quebec (1 dead).

Dahlia Lithwick Dahlia Lithwick

Dahlia Lithwick writes about the courts and the law for Slate, and hosts the podcast Amicus.

This April has already proven one of the most lethal in recent memory: It includes the slaughter by Jiverly Wong of 13 at a community center in Binghamton, N.Y., on April 3 and Richard Poplawski's cold-blooded murder of three Pittsburgh police officers on April 4. (Both were wearing body armor and described as "pseudo commandos"—seeking out a showdown with the police.) In Washington state, also on April 4, a father killed his five children, some in their beds. Two more killings in Charlotte. N.C., over Easter weekend. And we haven't yet hit the middle of the month—the 19th, 20th and, 21st—when deranged dreams of immortality tend to come into full blossom.

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It says so much about this country that we respond to Bernard Madoff with outrage and to mass shootings with teddy bears and candles. Frustrated columns are written and written and written and written. But we collectively refuse to connect one killing spree to the next or to accept that these events aren't random; like falling meteors from the sky. These events are the outgrowth of legal and policy choices we make every single day and the choices we avoid making year after year. We're willing to roll the dice with our children and our neighbors—because we want to think it only happens to other people's children and other people's neighbors—on the principle that guns have nothing to do with gun deaths. The American debate about gun regulation begins and ends with a tacit agreement that the occasional massacre is the price we pay for freedom. No wonder teddy bears and candles are the only national gun policy we have.

Even if we aren't brave enough to do anything about people with guns, can we at least evince outrage when people with guns are casually incited to use them? The National Rifle Association has, for instance, been responsible for disseminating a thoroughly debunked claim that President Obama has a "10 Point Plan To 'Change' the Second Amendment." The group has contended Obama intends to "ban use of firearms for home defense, ban possession and manufacture of handguns, close 90 percent of gun shops and ban hunting ammunition." And long after it became clear that there was simply no evidence for most of these claims, the NRA continued to assert, "We believe our facts."

Lucky for the NRA, many other Americans believe these "facts," too. They are getting them straight from Glenn Beck, who was frothing in March about an Obama conspiracy to take guns away, and from Andrew Napolitano, who hosted a Fox News segment featuring Alex Jones "exposing" the New World Order and Obama's "agenda" for gun confiscation. As Eric Boehlert pointed out in this smart piece connecting the incitement to the violence, "what Fox News is now programming on a daily (unhinged) basis is unprecedented in the history of American television." A national news show regularly accuses the president of socialism, fascism, Marxism, and the desire to destroy America.

Rep. Michele Bachmann announced last month that she wanted residents of her state "armed and dangerous" in response to Obama's plan to reduce global warming. And when elected representatives and TV pundits warn citizens to take up arms, citizens cannot really be faulted for taking up arms in response.

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Richard Poplawski—the Pittsburgh cop killer—was quite clear about what inspired his killing spree. He feared "the Obama gun ban that's on the way" and "didn't like our rights being infringed upon." (His aunt, Marianne Klimczyk, told reporters that his machine gun, rifles, and handguns were "recreational and for deer hunting.") Jiverly Wong, the Binghamton killer, cheerfully told a co-worker before the election that he'd shoot either Obama or McCain. And Jim David Adkisson left a four-page manifesto explaining precisely why he opened fire inside a Knoxville, Tenn., church last year: "This was a hate crime," he wrote. He simply wanted to kill the "generals" of the liberal movement: "Who I wanted to kill was every Democrat in the Senate and House, the 100 people in Bernard Goldberg's book. I'd like to kill everyone in the mainstream media. But I knew these people were inaccessible to me."

Nobody has taken responsibility for the content of the books, blogs, and news clips that contributed to the paranoid and violent views of these killers. And why would they? Books and newscasts don't kill people. People kill people.

Nor do the constant drumbeats about the president's anti-gun, anti-freedom, New World Order agenda fuel merely the suicidal, the psychotic, and the sociopathic. The Christian Science Monitor reports this week that Main Street America is on a "massive gun-and-ammunition buying spree" that has left gun shops short on assault-style weapons and ammunition. Those hoarding guns and ammunition share Poplawski's fear of Obama's (nonexistent) gun control initiative as well as the belief that America is facing a (nonexistent) crime wave. Never mind FBI numbers—cited in the same story—that reflect a decline in crime. As Tom Lee, a member of the Virginia Citizen Militia, explains to the Christian Science Monitor: "People are seeing a looming economic collapse that will lead to a prolonged and possibly worsening breakdown of law and order and, eventually, a We-the-People vs. armed-government-enforcers scenario."

The right wing has lost its mind today over a new report from the Department of Homeland Security warning of a surge in "rightwing extremist activity" and a danger of increased militia activity. As Glenn Greenwald notes, it's a little late for their tears on the privacy front. But as the far right worries that the president's storm troopers might trample their petunia beds, it's silent on the question of whether a nation full of disaffected, frightened, and rage-filled citizens should be packing heat.

And where is the Obama administration in all this? Obama has been kinder to the Second Amendment than most of his Democratic predecessors. He has said that he believes in the Second Amendment right to own a gun, "subject to reasonableregulations," and claims to want only modest gun control measures. When his press secretary, Robert Gibbs, was asked about the Binghamton and Pittsburgh killings and what the administration's plans were to confront gun violence, Gibbs said something about how great it was that "the Recovery Act put more police officers on the street to keep us safe." The administration hasn't even been clear about whether it intends to reinstate the assault weapons ban that expired under President Bush. What's Obama to do? Sixty-five Democrats in the House of Representatives have asked him not to push for the assault weapons ban.

The extreme hysteria that surrounds discussions of gun control leads to absurd arguments about causation. Nobody claims that Glenn Beck is responsible for killing people. Nobody thinks guns are inherently evil. But how can there be an honest national debate over gun violence if we cannot even acknowledge the connections between people who admonish us to become "armed and dangerous" and a citizen's decision to arm himself and kill? Our annual April shooting sprees have many complicated causes, and no single factor is fully to blame. But it's willful blindness to fail to see any connections between the rising number of guns in America, the decline in gun regulation, and the screaming nightly predictions about the rise of an apocalyptic totalitarian police state. Until we can recognize that these connections exist, there will be more killings in the coming weeks and years. You bring the candles. I'll bring the teddy bears.