- Special Sections
- Public Notices
In the aftermath of the Tucson shootings, I have begun to ask myself, once again, can the center hold?
Some years ago, I discovered the lines of William Butler Yeats in his poem, “The Second Coming,” which he wrote in 1919 just after World War I. These lines from its first stanza haunt me to this day.
“… Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned,
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.”
Now Yeats speaks to us again across the bloodiest century in human history. We are once more confronted with an act of violence in an era of incivility and a rising tide of extremism in our national public life. What happened in Arizona could happen in South Carolina and in any state in the country. “Everywhere the ceremony of innocence is drowned.”
Joshua Lederberg, a Nobel Prize laureate at age 33, a recipient of the National Medal of Science and the Presidential Letter of Freedom, said “All of civility depends on being able to contain the rage of individuals.”
That is precisely the point. I am sure that mental illness in people can become so extreme that it leads them to commit violence against themselves and others, no matter their surroundings or the political climate of the day. But I am also sure that when things fall apart, in Yeats’ phrase, “anarchy is loosed” and unstable individuals are encouraged, if not impelled, to act violently as a personal political statement. That is what assassinations of political figures have been about throughout human history and, sadly, in the land of the free and the home of the brave.
While I am a strong defender of the Second Amendment’s guarantee of the right to bear arms, I am concerned that a deranged person, rejected from military service and expelled from an educational institution for aggressive conduct, can walk into a gun store and purchase an assault weapon capable of spraying bullets in every direction in a matter of seconds.
I am also shocked with the shameful political ads, such as those aired across the country in the last general election by Sarah Palin that placed political candidates, one of whom was Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, in the cross hairs of a sniper’s telescope and her bizarre defense of the criticism she received as “blood libel,” the meaning of which she knowingly perverted or is obviously lost on her.
In South Carolina’s 2010 gubernatorial election, a TV ad by Nikki Haley’s campaign attacked Vincent Sheheen and with each verbal charge the glass in a framed photo of him shattered as it would have by gunfire.
These TV ads, and others like them, mock the First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech and clearly promote a climate of violence that endangers us all.
Last June, Glenn Beck, the talk show host, accused his political opponents in the United States of being communists, a charge one would think went out with McCarthyism in the 1950s. Beck said in one of his broadcasts, “they believe in communism. They believe and have called for a revolution. You’re going to have to shoot them in the head.” Yes, that is what the man said, an accurate description of “the worst are full of passionate intensity.”
I learned in January from the national media that a Lexington County gun manufacturer had produced 999 components for civilian assault rifles bearing the legend “You Lie.” Thankfully, Congressman Joe Wilson requested the manufacturer discontinue sale of these components. That the engraved part, “to honor our esteemed Congressman Joe Wilson,” was produced at all is beyond a bad idea, it is an outrage.
All of it proves that words matter. Words can inspire good and evil; they can elevate us as a nation and they can bring us down.
We are losing precious values in this country that include the practice of civility in debate, the respect of those with whom one disagrees and the right to peaceful assembly. This is the glue that holds the American center together.
If we are to survive as a democracy governed by the ballot, not the bullet, we had better act fast to regain our footing or the “anarchy” foreseen by William Butler Yeats “is loosed upon the world” and our great nation will lose the moral and political character needed to lead the world in the century ahead.
John S. Rainey, a Camden attorney and lifelong Republican, is the former chairman of the boards of the S.C. Board of Economic Advisors and Santee Cooper.