Gabrielle Giffords, American Gracchus

Gaius Gracchus

The Roman republic was 375 years old — more than 1½ times as old as the American republic is today — when, in 133 BCE, something unprecedented and indeed hitherto unimaginable occurred: domestic political violence.

A populist politician had got himself elected tribune by the citizens of Rome, in exactly the sort of democratic process that Rome was proud of. His name was Tiberius Gracchus, and he was ambitious, idealistic and perhaps somewhat naive. (He was also the grandson of my hero, Scipio Africanus, the nemesis of Hannibal.) This elder Gracchus — he had a younger brother named Gaius — then proposed reforms to improve the lot of the people. Many patricians in the Roman Senate did not like that.

It had never, up to this point, mattered that Senators and Tribunes, plebeians and patricians, Optimates and Populares (those were the names of Rome’s political factions) disagreed on matters of policy.

Of course they disagreed! Peaceful disagreement, in which the more persuasive arguments prevailed over time, was what the Roman republic was about. It was the reason Romans loved Rome.

Rome had withstood existential threats — a sack by the Gauls, near-extinction by Hannibal — without ever sacrificing its founding ideals: inside the city walls, there was no place for violence in politics.

But on that day in 133 BCE, a group of senators and their supporters made their way toward a popular assembly in progress. They beat Tiberius Gracchus and his supporters to death.

Yes, Rome was shocked. Of course it was. This incident had to be an outlier. The exception that proved the rule.

But it seems that a taboo had been broken, a precedent set. Something unthinkable had become thinkable: Political violence.

A decade after Tiberius’s murder, Gaius Gracchus (pictured above) followed in his brother’s footsteps. He, too, got himself elected tribune. He, too, intended to launch reforms.

And again, a mob of senators and their supporters came for him. Gaius fled to a grove and killed himself, as the attackers murdered his supporters.

Another outlier, they told themselves. An exception. Never to be repeated.

And yet, it was repeated. Over the next century the Romans — a people always well-armed, often for the right reasons — began flashing blades to intimidate other Romans in any disagreement. The tone of debate changed. The incidents of political violence became more frequent, and worse.

A taboo once toppled is difficult to re-erect.

Marius, Sulla, Pompey, the Caesars….

Violence, or the threat of it, now prevailed in Rome.

Rome would remain a superpower for much longer. But no longer a republic. Not the Rome that the likes of Scipio Africanus had ever fought for. Not the Rome they considered worth preserving and defending.

79 thoughts on “Gabrielle Giffords, American Gracchus

  1. Thought provoking as always. I have a new book suggestion for you: The Coming Fury, by Bruce Catton. Catton was a highly respected Civil War historian but I don’t know how he is viewed by today’s postmodern historians. The book was written in 1961 (I know, behind the curve as usual, but I re-read it on the trip) and is an analysis of the events of 1860-61. It explores how Lincoln’s election triggered the secession of South Carolina and then the events that led to Fort Sumpter and Bull Run.

    It is very timely for three reasons. First, it’s always useful to remind ourselves of these things. Second, it is a classic lesson in how the trigger gets pulled for very different reasons than the underlying issue that caused the problem in the first place. Events basically spiralled out of control and the truly fatal decisions were simply reactions to current crises rather than a reflection on how things related to the bigger picture. Third, and most important, it shows how easily ideological differences can lead to political polarities and then to violence. In the years leading up to 1860 there were huge arguments and Congress with lots of ad hominem attacks and even congressmen challenging each other to duel. Catton says of reading the Congressional Record, “One sees so much passion and unrestrained invective that one is almost surprised the war did not come earlier than it did.”

    One can only hope that the Giffords tragedy is a wake up call rather than another step on teh slippery slope.

    • Alright it’s on my list: Your record as book recommender remains unbroken. (And old books still being recommended are even more likely to be good.)

      Just from your summary above, I like it. For instance, you say: “the trigger gets pulled for very different reasons than the underlying issue.”

      That applies to the first, second and third Punic wars, just for starters.

      And then WWI.

      Frightening to think too much about it….

    • I would rephrase: Knowing whence you come helps you decide whither you should go.

      (Ie, I take the determinism out of the sentiment, and view it as “lessons”)

    • Oops. I answered Paul before I saw your comment, Gia. Yes, your question is the big one.

      You and I would quickly agree on where we SHOULD go. But you and I are not the demographic that could put the direction in jeopardy. It’s the “unbalanced” people out there, as Sheriff Dupnik called them. This, too, is the lesson of the Roman Revolution: It doesn’t matter if 99% of Roman senators and citizens agree which way is best, if those 99% can’t stand up to a Marius, a Sulla, a Pompey or a Caesar (or are even seduced by those same individuals into considering them the answer)

  2. Interesting but, ultimately, it was inevitable. Peaceful political processes are not the norm in human history. Once the first man learned he could best an opponent in an argument by hitting him with a rock or club, that became the norm. It is the peaceful transition of power, the cooperative handling of that power, and “gentlemanly discourse” that is the anomaly.

    @Thomas, one might say the path to the Civil War was begun at the end of the Revolutionary War. Certainly by the establishment of a government under the Constitution. But without compromise during the creation of that document (and that government), it would have happened sooner.

    • Not the norm, for sure. But our founding fathers, like Publius and Brutus (first consuls of Republican Rome and pennames for Hamilton, Madison and Jay), specifically set out to create a system and civic culture that would disprove the norm, that would NOT regress to the (violent) mean. Open question where this goes….

    • Might a good first step be a discourse on the benefits of keeping machine guns out of the hands of people who have been kicked out of school for antisocial behavior?

    • @Pallas

      “Over three-hundred years of political peace”? In what country? Certainly not the US. I give you the Civil War, the assassination of Lincoln, Garfield, McKinley, and Kennedy. And that’s just presidents. We also have a number of others who were lesser officers and some civilians, all with political motives of some kind. And I have not mentioned the plots and attempts. The 1960’s were quite politically violent also.


      The Founding Fathers were also pragmatic and allowed slavery to continue in the new nation… mostly in order to forestall a civil war or an early breakup of the states. This led to political violence over slavery and, eventually, to the Civil War in the mid-1800’s. And there were incredibly nasty exchanges between political opponents and their supporters throughout our history. I agree that these were not the goals (or dreams) of the Founders but Free Speech (followed by the right to bear arms) are the first things attacked following assassinations or attempts.


      Loughner neither had nor used a “machine gun”. He used a semi-automatic handgun with an illegal 30 round (according to some reports, probably a 15 round though) magazine. The odds are that he obtained the handgun illegally but we do not know that yet.

    • 1. I purposely used the term “machine gun” knowing full well that the weapon was a semi-automatic. I wanted to see if the debate would focus on that point or the bigger issue.

      2. I doubt if Gabrielle Giffords is very much concerned with the distinction at this point.

    • @Pallas

      My error. Though I wonder how peaceful that period really was? No assassinations of leaders, perhaps. But unrest, secession (287BC), and a struggles for power existed throughout the Republic’s history (and let’s not mention that, even though it was a Republic, it was expanding into an empire).

    • @Douglas: Of course you’re right, I expect there was a fair amount of unrest over that period of time. However, the lack of any outright assassinations is a step up from many other civilizations, both ancient and modern.

    • @Thomas

      The difference is unimportant to the victims, that is correct. It is, however, important to the point of toning down the rhetoric. Which is fast becoming “the” issue, it appears.

  3. Thank you again for continuing my education and for helping me put context to a tragedy (living in Tucson, this one was in my backyard).

    • The images on TV are quite moving, a community coming together. Unfortunately it seems like the immediate goodwill is dissolving quite quickly as, once again, the sound bites win. It amazes me that at just shy of 39 , I can still be disillusioned. In fairness the people here are really coming together, just afraid it won’t last to be effective.

      It’s interesting to me that this happened here since I’ve often thought that Tucson and AZ generally, is a place of political extremes. Could the differences between Joe Arpio and Clarence Dupnik be any more revealing?

      What I don’t understand is how we, as a culture, can agree that a verbally hostile environment in a school can lead to violence and jump all over fixing that, but now so many people can say that the venom in the political sphere doesn’t have any bearing on this? People who commit these horrific acts are of course disturbed, but that in no way means they are not a product of the environment.

      We all scream to defend our ‘rights’ without once considering that those rights come with responsibility.

  4. The nine-year-old girl who died in the shooting was born on September 11, 2001. She had been featured in a book called Faces of Hope, one baby from each of the fifty states born on that day. Our symbol of hope in the face of foreign terrorism is struck down before her tenth birthday by a domestic terrorist. What now?

  5. The whole world trembles when the US turns against itself, even slightly.

    A timely reminder, Andreas, of the ill-effects of intemperate language and intolerance and how base human nature can be. Do we celebrate these traits or consciously control them as an act of voluntary will?

    The parallels not only in classical times but throughout history and in every land serve as a warning. Do we stagnate or progress?

    There is no need to speak of broken taboos or obliquely of any other superstition. I do not share your pessimism. I resolve today to moderate my speech and pay heed to others’ point of view so that I may learn and improve myself. That, I trust, is the language of victory, not defeat.

    • Well, we all join you in that resolution.

      But as I said in my reply to Gia above, readers of The Hannibal Blog are not exactly the “at-risk” audience that we need be concerned with. This is about (a) a “climate” of discourse and (b) the effect that climate has on the very, very few, but disastrous, crazies out there….

    • @Richard and Andreas

      Do we accept restrictions on Freedom of Speech then? Self imposed is acceptable but should we also accept government imposed restrictions out of fear of the deranged?

    • I shouldn’t take another law or restrictions on free speech to change the way we speak to each other. But it does require that each of us take the responsibility to not only moderate our own speech, but to tell others when their tone is unacceptable. When did it become a sin to demand civility?

    • @Lainey

      We can each tone down our rhetoric, we can turn off radios or TV programs that we feel feed this “violent discourse”, we can not elect (or re-elect) those in politics who engage in it, but we cannot rid ourselves of it without eliminating free speech. Therein lies the problem. You see, demanding civility is one thing, requiring it is another. You might tell someone to watch his (or her) language… at your own risk. But you have no authority to ensure, to demand, that he (or she) be civil. It’s a free society. I would hope it remains so.

    • Perhaps you need to re-read my comment – I stated that none of us find Anything that comes Close, and I mean on Any issue. And I never meant to imply that the people I know all have anywhere near the same political beliefs. I never suggested that diversity was defined as major media oulet agreeing with all of my stands, but when a very diverse group of people can’t find One of their views expressed Anywhere? yes, I do think that’s “not diverse.”

      You are spot on about the rhetoric coming from both sides. I did not mean to give an impression that I believed one side worse than the other. Actually, most days I can’t really tell the difference between them.

      You have no power to change it? I thought the glory of living in this country is that the power to change things belongs to each of us.

    • Oops, major user error. The previous comment of course belongs further down.

      I would never try to take away free speech. The very thought is appalling. But therein lies the problem – everything our culture discusses these days seems to turn into a black and white issue. We can either only speak to each in the nastiest ways possible or we curtail free speech. I don’t restrict my kids’ speech and yet somehow my 7 year old is capable of expressing his dismay with bedtime without calling me a Nazi.

      You remind us all that asking someone to speak more civilly will likely carry the risk of violence. What a world we live in.

    • @Lainey

      My problem is a simple one: How do we reduce the incivility of discourse on a societal scale? there are, basically, two ways. Individually on a voluntary basis and hope it “trickles down” or collectively where the State defines a standard of behavior and enforces it. Neither way would have prevented an incident such as the one in Tucson.

      I cannot think of a more regimented and controlled society than China (except North Korea) yet they have had similar violent public attacks. Here’s one:

      Would you say the level of discourse in Chinese society was a factor in that attack?

      Psychologists, for decades, have warned us of the problems of repressing our anger. And, in our society, it is collective anger at government policies which have forced a change in those policies. I refer you to the Civil War, the Civil Rights movement, the anti-war protests of the 60’s and early 70’s, even our own Revolutionary War.

      Should we not get angry over social injustice? Should we simply accept the unfairness or the bad policies?

      There are no easy answers to the problem of out of control people exploding in violence.

    • You seem to be suggesting that I believe the tone of our current discourse caused Saturday’s violence. I don’t believe that; I do believe that it was a contributing factor. And it would be silly of me to believe that because it contributed to one incidence of political violence, it necessarily contributes to all political violence.

      Do you believe we are wasting our time talking about changing the tone of discourse? Where do you think we should be directing our energies?

      Yes, repressing anger (or any emotion) is bad. But expression is not the same as ‘not repressing.’ Psychology research continues to show that the expression of anger only leads to more anger. That is not to say one should never do something about what triggered the anger.

      We absolutely should get angry over social injustice, unfairness, and bad policies. But is calling Bush a Nazi or Obama a communist really about social injustice? The main problem I see with today’s discourse is that there is so much expressing of (completely legitimate) anger, about (completely legitimate) differences, that no one is actually addressing what caused the anger. Finding real solutions requires rational discussions.

    • @Lainey

      You seem to be suggesting that I believe the tone of our current discourse caused Saturday’s violence. I don’t believe that; I do believe that it was a contributing factor. And it would be silly of me to believe that because it contributed to one incidence of political violence, it necessarily contributes to all political violence.

      If I seem to be suggesting that, I am not being clear. I am suggesting that you do think it is a contributing factor. Which you have just acknowledged believing. You see, I don’t think that. I do not believe that this lunatic was influenced by the tone of political discourse but by the “voices in his head.” In other words, if the political discourse was polite and civil, he might have struck out at his own family or random strangers in a mall or both. It was his lunacy that is at the heart of this. If political discourse played any part in this, it was in his choice of target. If that is what you meant by “contributing factor” then I would agree. But I think it is an unimportant “contributing factor.” You might guess I am not more appalled by the fact that a Congresswoman was attacked than I am that anyone was attacked.

      I agree with you that name calling does nothing to help correct social injustice. Yet, it is common and has always been so. Do we then concentrate on the name-calling and dismiss the injustice? If you allow freedom of expression, you have to allow for extremist comments. You cannot pick and choose what’s acceptable or you no longer have freedom of expression.

      These are simply my thoughts on these things, nothing of what I say should be taken personally. I have tried to express these thoughts without offending. That is sometimes difficult because insult, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.

  6. The fact that Death can be a winning political argument, as it often is in with fascist, shows the vulnerability of human culture. We struggle to rise and stoop so easily.

    • I would disagree. First, most assassinations have resulted in outcomes much different than the assassins intended. I am not sure I would call any of these a “winning political argument.” Death may end an argument but usually not a political one. The political issues remain and others take up fight.

      The only thing we could actually learn from political violence is that it very rarely resolves a political problem.

  7. I’m no expert of American politics but I understand the basic picture and am worried.

    Getting to Ancient Rome and to your parallel.

    Perhaps Roman history prior to Tiberius Graccus has been idealised a bit, and perhaps the Roman Republic didn’t die only for the growing violence but also because a ruling class become decadent and selfish was no longer capable of governing a big empire grown too quickly, was not sympathetic with the interest of the entire Roman people (as the Gracchi, also aristocrats, did) but only with theirs.

    But the parallel is not unbefitting. Such shocking violence within the walls of Rome did set a precedent. Marius, Sulla, Pompey and the Caesars arrived.

    Now, can the tragedy of Gabrielle set a similar precedent? Is the American democracy degrading more and more? I hope not.

    The loss of a state based on discussion in the Ancient world was not a big problem. The empire prospered nonetheless, most societies were undemocratic, Caesar(s) kept together a structure that would have collapsed with endless sorrow.
    Today it is different. A disguised Caesarian solution would be a tragedy. We are already progressively loosing our per capita wealth in the West, let us at least keep some freedom and our ‘peaceful disagreements’.

    • I would pose that we are making an erroneous comparison here. Gracchus position as Tribune was much more than the equivalent of our Representatives. She, Giffords, was one of 435 Representatives and had nowhere near the power that a Tribune held. Also, Gracchus was assassinated by other members of the Roman government. A true political assassination for purposes of retaining the power and prestige that Gracchus was perceived to threaten. In other words, Gracchus threatened the status quo of those who had enjoyed positions of power. Gifford was attacked by a madman with pretty much unfathomable thought processes.

    • @Man of Roma and @Douglas,

      good points, all.

      You both realize that, with my title, I was trying to shock people into a thought experiment.

      When drawing lessons from history, you never have perfect symmetry available to you. So you choose events from the past that highlight some, but not all, aspects of the situation to be analyzed.

      As for MoR’s point that there were other factors in the pursuant decline of the Roman republic: Yes, but those other factors also have eerie parallels in modern America: the latifundia, the large landowners driving out the yeoman farmers, the corruption of the political class by “special interests” (including veterans in Rome’s example)…..

      And — this was the point of this post — the increasing violence of both speech and discourse and then physical conflict.

      Aristotle, Polybius, Montesquieu, the Founders believed that “virtue” was a prerequisite to preserving a republic in the long term (ie, not “just” individual freedom). Virtue not as decreed by the government but as maintained by culture.

      The questions are: can virtue be maintained over the long term? Can it be maintained in a small republic once it becomes a superpower? If it declines, can the decline be stopped?

    • @Andreas

      And — this was the point of this post — the increasing violence of both speech and discourse and then physical conflict.

      I take it, then, that you are of the position that violent political speech by some leads to violent political action by unconnected others?

      Let me explain that. Hitler’s rhetoric certainly led to great civil and political violence. As did, I am sure, any number of warlords’ words have done. Violent speech by coaches inspire players to be more physical, for that matter. But these are connected individuals and the resultant acts serve a purpose for the speech makers.

      What I gather from your words is that the violence on a football field triggers violence in the stands. Or, put another way, angry political speech about the aggressions of other countries triggers war with those countries.

      I am not so sure of this. I think they both exist concurrently.

      I do like your questions. Some may see events like this as a sign of deterioration of civil society. I don’t agree. Extreme speech is rampant in all societies, sometimes repressed, sometimes praised. The U.S. has enshrined the idea that ideas must not be restricted, that speech must not be curtailed. Suppressing speech just makes it all that more attractive (forbidden fruit).

      Is the Tucson event that much different than the attempted assassination of Reagan in 1981? I don’t see it. A nutcase attacked a political figure under the delusions of some twisted logic.

  8. PS

    Maybe I’m too naive. A disguised Caesarian solution is already in place. America is already governed by the Big Money responsible for the degraded ‘climate of discourse’: they control the media (Fox News and the rest), they are financing the TeaPartiers, they probably financed the Birthers. Democratic rules don’t count much if you can get around them with money and demagogy in so many ways. And allow me, I much preferred the CNN style of journalism, that today nobody likes any more.

    • It always makes me sad when I read something like this. Our news media is quite diverse. It is neither controlled by the State nor controlled by any one man or enterprise. Foxnews is one corporation (NewsCorp) which funds nothing more than its own news channels and newspapers. It does not finance the Tea Party and I am fairly sure no one of importance is financing the Birthers. On the Left, NBC (owned by General Electric) pretty much openly backed Hillary in 2008. Meanwhile, ABC and CBS are merely liberal leaning. Wall Street might be accurately described as a “power behind the throne” by virtue of its importance in our economy.

      CNN, as far as I can tell, is still broadcasting so you can prefer it as you wish. Its ratings have dropped domestically for a number of reasons, mostly having to do with its editorial choices.

      I would not presume to describe the way Italy is run. Nor why Berlusconi remains as Prime Minister. But I would not accuse Italy of being run by the Pope either.

    • @Douglas I will agree that there are lots of voices in our news media, but I’m not convinced it’s truly diverse. Almost everyone I know fails to find anything that comes even close to resembling their own views (with perhaps the exception of The Daily Show and that’s a little sad since it’s a comedy program). And we are not alone; ratings for news programs show that people aren’t abandoning one channel for another, they’ve just given up watching any of them.

    • Between Andrew Sullivan, a few economists’ blogs, and the blogs at The Economist (as well as The Economist itself), I can find my views expressed. On TV, I find the ABC Roundtable to be pretty tolerable. Everything else is mostly trash.

    • @Lainey

      Is that how you define “diverse”? Having major outlets with whom you agree? Perhaps you don’t think our news media is diverse because your views are those of a small minority. I would posit that Loughner’s views are those of an extreme minority and no news outlet reflects his take on things. I am not saying you are a whacko. I am saying that the news media in this country reflects the tastes of a majority of the country. I tend to call that diverse since it also represents those diverse tastes and opinions.

      I have seen and heard what I would call incendiary rhetoric from all parts of the political spectrum. I have seen people burn presidents in effigy, I have heard and read the comments like “Where is Lee Harvey Oswald now that we need him” (that started in the late 60’s and continued up into the last decade), I have seen politicians on each side of the aisle lie about the other party. In my mind, some of the worst comes out of the Left. But that is just my opinion. I would like everyone to tone it down but I have no power to do that. And I wouldn’t want the power.

    • @Lainey (I brought your comment down here where you felt it belonged)

      Perhaps you need to re-read my comment – I stated that none of us find Anything that comes Close, and I mean on Any issue. And I never meant to imply that the people I know all have anywhere near the same political beliefs. I never suggested that diversity was defined as major media outlet agreeing with all of my stands, but when a very diverse group of people can’t find One of their views expressed Anywhere? yes, I do think that’s “not diverse.”

      I would worry if I could not find some media outlet, a large one, that did not reflect most of my views. I would worry about me, that is, not the media. It would make me suspect that I am the one “out of step”, not society. I am sure that Loughner felt pretty much the same way, he viewed things quite differently than the rest of us and likely had no media which reflected his views, certainly not any major news outlets.

      You are spot on about the rhetoric coming from both sides. I did not mean to give an impression that I believed one side worse than the other. Actually, most days I can’t really tell the difference between them.

      I can tell the difference, I can also spot the hypocrisy of slandering one’s political opponent for doing what your own party does. I’ve seen a lot of that in the past few days.

      You have no power to change it? I thought the glory of living in this country is that the power to change things belongs to each of us.

      A single individual cannot change things on a grand scale. Not easily and not without winning others over to his side. Then the collective power may be enough. Loughner possibly thought he was doing just that.

      So how do we retain that individual power and yet prevent the individual excessive expression of it?

    • Thanks for the move – I was afraid I’d just make things worse if I tried it!

      Maybe I am completely out of step. But while you point out that Loughner too was out of step, I will point out that so were all the women in the 2nd wave feminist movement who looked at the media and saw nothing of themselves reflected there. So are all the people of color in the last few decades who have looked at the media and not seen themselves reflected there. Are these two groups out of step, or is the media? Of course I think it’s also worth pointing out that other out of step people have included: Martin Luther, Martin Luther King, Jr., Margaret Sanger, Galileo, Jesus, Nelson Mandela.

      Are you suggesting that it’s pointless to try to affect any kind of change?

      I don’t agree that an individual cannot change things on a grand scale. And while I suppose it’s fair to say that the people I named above all did manage to win others to their side, most of them made huge sacrifices for their beliefs long before they had large followings.

    • @Lainey

      Excellent points. people spoke out against those injustices. What if they hadn’t? What if they had been civil instead? What if MLK had not urged protests, sit-ins, and marches? What if women had not pushed hard for the vote prior to 1920? What if John Brown had not listened to the abolitionists and had not created a militia and attacked slavery as an institution? What if Patrick Henry had not written those pamphlets?

      No, I don’t think its pointless to try to affect change. I think, in a society where speech is circumspect, it might be extremely difficult to affect that change. One person does not create change. That person must convince others, the concept must be accepted by a significant number of others in a society. You will note I have not said a “majority”, just a “significant number.”

      Incendiary speech (made by proponents of all the changes you and I mentioned) is what brings the issue(s) to the attention of others. On the one hand, it leads to things like Women’s Suffrage and expansion of Civil Rights. On the other, it can lead to violence. How and where do we draw the line?

  9. I must strongly disagree with your comparison… Many American political leaders (sadly) have been shot over the years. Reagan almost died from an assassination attempt. John Lennon died from an assassination. They were both shot by crazy people. Gabrielle Giffords was shot by a crazy person. I do not think the inflamed rhetoric had anything to do with it.

    I would say the American Gracchus would more likely be Lincoln or McKinley (the secret service was created after the assassination of the latter).

    Personally, I don’t understand why the conversation about this tragedy has gone this way. Whatever happened to the gun control debate?

    • The gun control debate will be there. I wonder, since Arizona is one of the few states that allow concealed weapon carry without a permit, why no one else in that crowd had a weapon and/or attempted to use it against Loughner. In Florida, a weapon cannot be taken into any government building, sporting event, post office, or political event even if one has a permit to carry (police and security exempted). Of course, the person intent on doing harm to others, the one who goes out one day with the full intent to murder people, is unlikely to be deterred by a mere law.

      By the way, one minor correction: Lincoln created the Secret Service on April 14, 1865. They were tasked at that time to go after counterfeiting. After McKinley’s assassination, their role was expanded to include protecting the President (among other duties).

    • Realize it’s coming from the tiny minority of me, but I don’t know anyone who carries a gun regularly, concealed or not (I live in Tucson, have family all over the state). Given the area I wouldn’t be surprised if no one nearby was armed. Anyone who was armed may also have hesitated to fire in such a busy location.

    • @Luke Carlson:

      Obviously, there has been political violence in American before the shooting of Giffords. My intention, as I said in my reply to MoR and Douglas above, was to jolt readers into a thought experiment by drawing a historical analogy.

      Setting the Civil War era aside for a moment, you can call RFK or MLK the Gracchi, or others yet. That still raises the question of where on the “Roman trajectory” America is today.

  10. As horrifying and saddening as what happened in Arizona was, some perspective on murderous attacks on elected representatives is called for, considering what has happened in some countries not noted for political violence.

    Examples are the Swedish foreign minister at the time being shot and killed in a department store in 2004; the current German finance minister suffering a serious lifelong disability after being shot after an election campaign event in 1990; three British Conservative MPs being killed by the IRA in the not so distant past; and, most recently, a former British Labour minister being stabbed at a constituency meeting a few months ago.

    Given the above, and given US’s gun laws, it is perhaps surprising that there haven’t been more murderous attacks in the US on elected representatives.

    Needless to say, none of this detracts in any way from the horror and tragedy of the attack on Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, and of the very sad deaths of all the others.

    • Good points, Philippe.

      “Given the above, and given US’s gun laws, it is perhaps surprising that there haven’t been more murderous attacks in the US on elected representatives.”

      I suppose this is the worry: Will more crazies, with more guns, commit more such atrocities…..

  11. @Andreas

    As for MoR’s point that there were other factors in the pursuant decline of the Roman republic: Yes, but those other factors also have eerie parallels in modern America: the latifundia, the large landowners driving out the yeoman farmers, the corruption of the political class by “special interests”

    Yes, I also believe they have. And I also think both ruling classes – the Roman and the American – have something in common: “can virtue be maintained over the long term”?


    I think we have discussed many related-to-this topics on my blog and elsewhere ad nauseam 🙂

    • I wonder it too Douglas, but let me add that – and here you won’t agree but I accept it and even like it and this is the beauty of civilly discussion – with pure capitalism as a dogmatic system good for all seasons and never requiring any corrections (like those we have for example in Canada or in the UK) virtue is possibly even less probable.

    • @MoR

      No system is perfect. Actually, no system is acceptable to all people living under it. Pure socialism is oppressive and degrading, pure communism will never happen, pure democracy would likely lead to chaos and, perhaps, anarchy.

      I don’t know of any country that practices “pure capitalism”, so why single it out for criticism?

    • Easy Douglas. I don’t see all the big deal. Of course no pure capitalism exists. I simply meant that, seen from Europe – France, Germany, Uk, Sweden, Italy etc. – America appears overall more … convinced about, and more practising, capitalism. Too tired to articulate my thought: too late (and too much into Roman Saturnalia.)

      In any case, even when you think America is criticized, any country is criticized, I don’t see why America should be an exception especially given her position in the world. Think of mine, how it is criticised, or of my words, that made you and Exuvia ‘sad’ (I was a bit extreme). It’s ok, and probably said stupid things.

      But if America, for some reason, is going through a difficult moment, and the debate out there is *very* heated, which may or may not imply consequences, and if we talk about it, it is because we care for America and most of all because America touches us all.

      Very blurred thought mine. Time to hit the sack. And let’s not get heated also here at the Hannibal’s 🙂

    • @MoR

      I sometimes get a bit passionate in my comments. I do not mean to offend. I took issue only because capitalism is simply an economic system, nothing more, and because some people seem to think capitalism is unbridled in the U.S. when it actually is regulated, taxed, and restricted. Less so than in some countries, more so than in others. We had almost uncontrolled capitalism at one time but government stepped in and went after trusts and monopolies. That was back at the beginning of the 20th century.

      We in the U.S. often see most European countries as predominantly socialist. Neither pure capitalism nor pure socialism exist on a national scale anywhere. We also look askance at Canada on that issue. At the same time, we accept it in our lives as Social Security and Medicare. I suppose that makes us a bit bipolar.

      I am, often, too defensive and too ready to take offense.

    • @Douglas

      Don’t worry Douglas. I get passionate too at times. It must be age. I know you didn’t mean to offend. And I’m sorry I probably appeared, and was, provoking.

  12. @ Douglas
    It makes me equally sad.

    I equally agree with your correction of my phrasing. I was lamenting the fact that Death could even be considered as a way to end political disagreement and the fact that fascism often, if not always, will use this line of thought and action.

    There is no win and no solution by killing, only a shameful silence; a shame on the killer.

    There is no cure by silencing a symptom, no harmony in the body of men by eliminating a voice that begs to differ.

    • Death has always been an option in political differences. War is, of course, the ultimate political debate. Assassination is nothing new, it is also as old as civilization and likely older. Kings rose to power on their ability to not only outsmart their opponents but to kill them off if they could not neutralize them another way. The leaders of the French Revolution murdered their former rulers. The communists knocked off their former royalty in Russia.

      Politics rouses passions, I suppose, and passions lead to senseless acts of violence at times. We may not like it but it is a part of our heritage.

  13. I do not mean to imply that harmony of thought amongst humans can ever be achieved; it would not even be desirable as it could, and likely would, lead to a deleterious stagnation of culture.

    The harmony possible would be a climate of tolerance; of interest and curiosity in a differing perspective while elaborating a personal stance.

    • You should compare it to:

      Stewart and company do a good job of using the absurd to showcase the absurdity of political discourse. But they, too, are a part of that discourse and ridiculing segments of the overall debate does not build respect or confidence in the system, does it?

      I am drawn back to observations I have made of entertainment and its affect on the general public. “Father Knows Best” and “Leave it to Beaver” (among others) painted an idealized view of middle America. So, once we lost our innocence, those shows went the way of the Dodo and were replaced by things like “The Simpsons” and “Married with Children” (and others) that ridicule that ideal.

      It is not simply political discourse which is demeaning and denigrating, it appears to be all cultural commentary and debate.

      But, again, let me state my support for the freedom we have to make demeaning and denigrating satire as well as incendiary political commentary.

  14. Ah, the Gracchi brothers…I remember a favorite professor explaining how the boni & the populares were both made up of wealthy & powerful aristocrats–but the opposing sides used different methods of politicking (an insight which has clarified all politics ever since). I’m not surprised you played by the Economist’s lexicon and called Tiberius a populist!

    Regarding the larger implications of your essay–it seems the Arizona gunman suffered from mental and emotional illnesses. When one of our elected legislators is savagely ripped apart by colleagues inside the capitol and then dumped in the Potomac, then analogies with the later Roman republic will be appropriate.

    • Absolutely. The senatorial mob is not at all the same as the Pima County wingnut.

      As I said above (in another comment), this was meant more as a thought exercise: the role of aggression (not to use the word violence) in political discourse.

  15. A taboo once toppled may be difficult to re-erect, but here in the U.S. this particular taboo was toppled the day Lincoln was assassinated (if not the day some crazy painter attempted to shoot Andrew Jackson) and several times thereafter, yet still this country seems to be able to handle the most acrimonious political divisions without blood in the streets.

    Given the number of firearms in the country, the fact that the hullabaloo in the wake of the 2000 presidential election, for instance, went off without a single shot being fired shows a fairy advanced degree of societal evolution toward non-violence.

    • Well, then you can celebrate — by interpreting this post’s title to be not an analogy but a contrast:

      Look, here’s what happened to the Roman Republic, isn’t that terrible; but instead, we’re on the opposite path, towards sunny heights, isn’t that great.

      I’m not making fun of you. I’m simply making explicit that my post was intentionally open-ended. I drew ONE of several historical analogies from the past. How our situation plays out in our future is as yet unknown.

    • @Cyberquill

      The closest event in U.S history to the assassination of Gracchus I can think of is the duel between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr. Yet, that was not political assassination but a violent (and deadly) confrontation of a personal nature between two political figures.

      I do not think that a comparison between the attempt on Giffords is anything remotely like the Gracchus assassination.

    • Lincoln was shot in the back of the head by a guy who wanted to make a political point, although Booth was lucid enough to perform a targeted assassination and stopped short of randomly firing into the audience.

      And Booth’s motive, while deplorable, was relatively clear. Even John Hinckley had a clear motive. A stupid one (to impress Jodie Foster), but at least one that, although not subject to being condoned, could be easily understood.

      Like Booth and the Graccus assassins, yet unlike Hinckley, this Loughner character seemed to have been politically motivated, except that unlike all of the above, his precise objectives appear to reside beyond the grasp of rational observers.

      In the end, it was just a crazy guy with a gun, and I’m sure there are plenty of historical analogies where mentally distempered individuals with spears or crossbows committed senseless acts of violence against politicians and innocent bystanders.

    • My condolences on your loss.

      Thank you very much for that link, the article (and the study) was quite fascinating. I also found a link from that which led me to another article, one in Mother Jones…

      …which I either found helpful in trying to get an understanding of Loughner or reinforced some notions I already had about him. Either way, I found the Mother Jones’ article interesting reading.

      One thing struck me in the article you cited. It was one of the charges which have been filed against Loughner…

      “two counts of unlawfully killing a federal employee”

      My mind immediately popped up with “Is there a lawful way of (or reason for) killing a federal employee?”

      In the MJ article, the question that Loughner asked Giffords at that rally/meeting in 2007 is “What is government if words have no meaning?” Her answer (or maybe her aides’ answers) didn’t satisfy him. Maybe they just blew him off and didn’t answer him at all because the next paragraph pens with:

      “He said, ‘Can you believe it, they wouldn’t answer my question,’ and I told him, ‘Dude, no one’s going to answer that,'” Tierney recalls.

      For some reason, apparently, Loughner became fixated on this.

      All of which says, to me, that this event was not really politically motivated (in the sense I think of that) nor influenced/triggered by ongoing inflammatory political rhetoric.

  16. The killings in Arizona perpetrated by an apparently mentally deranged killer are a reminder that the human is unique in the animal kingdom for having a brain which hereditarilly malfunctions.

    For instance one in a hundred humans suffers from hereditary schizophrenia. This is like having one in a hundred eagles blind from birth. Or one in a hundred kangaroos having no hop.

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