Topic: Society

Obama’s Virginia Tech Comments and the Meaning of Violence

It is hardly a trenchant observation to note that major tragedies bring out the worst in many public figures, a reliably revolting display that ranges from exploitation to pandering to race-baiting to absurd defensiveness. The Asian American Journalist Association, as reported by, used media reports of the shootings at Virginia Tech to complain that the killer was needlessly identified as Korean, when, it claimed, such racial specificity was immaterial to the event. Presumably, then, this racially-defined association feels that it is critical that a reporter writing about the massacre be identified as Asian, but not the person carrying it out. Hmmmm. Then there was American Idol contestant Chris Richardson, who interrupted a quite accurate critique of his nasal and lackluster singing on the live broadcast by strategically declaring his sympathy for the shooting victims, stopping the criticism cold and picking up cheap votes from viewers who were both gullible and hard of hearing. Conservative radio talk show host Laura Ingraham’s reaction to the shootings seemed to be—could she really believe this?— an endorsement of permitting college students to carry hand guns!

But it is rock star presidential candidate Barack Obama who has most thoroughly disgraced himself with his comments about Virginia Tech, not that the still-fawning media has noticed. In the wake of Virginia Tech’s horror, Obama told a campaign crowd in Wisconsin that he hoped the tragedy “causes us to reflect a little more broadly on the degree to which we do accept violence in various forms all the time in our society: we glorify it, we encourage it, we ignore it, and it’s heartbreaking.” What “various forms of violence” did the aspiring Chief Executive feel deserved mention the context of a bloody slaughter by a madman? Well, naturally the first thing that came to mind was…Don Imus!

“Last week, the big news obviously had to do with Imus, and the verbal violence that was directed at young women who were role models for all of us, role models for my daughters. … There’s the violence of men and women who have worked all their lives and suddenly have the rug pulled out from under them because their job has moved to another country, they’ve lost their job and they’ve lost their pension benefits and they’ve lost their healthcare, and they’re having to compete against their teenage children for jobs at the local fast-food place paying $7 an hour. There is the violence of children whose voices are not heard in communities that are ignored, who don’t have access to a decent education, who are surrounded by drugs and crime, and a lack of hope. So there’s a lot of different forms of violence in our society…”

Wow! Apparently a lot more forms than anyone ever thought, including Noah and Miriam Webster.

This is an irresponsible statement in so many ways, and calls into question Obama’s integrity and judgement. Violence, like oppression, racism, rape and sexism, is an important problem in society, and as an important problem, it must be definable and identifiable if it is going to be resisted and addressed. But because virtually everyone agrees that violence is bad, some individuals will seek to exploit that consensus by trying to attach the violence label to conduct that has little or nothing to do with violence. The technique is familiar with the other concepts: some civil rights advocates successfully stifle criticism by calling any negative statement, no matter how accurate or well-reasoned, directed at an African American “racism.” Some feminists expand the concept of “sexual abuse” to include words, looks, and art. Perhaps blurring the line between real actions and metaphorical ones is politically useful, but it is part deception, part dishonesty. It is, in short, unethical.

Obama’s expanded definition of “violence” is truly breath-taking. Don Imus’ stupid remark was insulting and tasteless, but it was not violence. People losing their jobs because of changes in the economy may be unfair and certainly unfortunate, but it isn’t violence. Adults competing for minimum wage jobs isn’t violence, lack of access to good schools isn’t violence. Violence doesn’t mean mere misfortune, or that something isn’t working right, or that people are unhappy and in need. Barack Obama, a Harvard graduate, knows all that: he got As on his Middle School vocabulary tests.

The potential consequences of his cynical and intentional misuse of the word are not insignificant. It risks trivializing the deaths of real people, young people, to imply there is any just comparison between losing a job and having a bullet crash through your brain while you are mid-scream. Despicably, it equates the motives and morals of a cold-blooded murderer with corporate leaders who export jobs in order to compete with international competitors. It fatuously implies that a solution to drug and crime-ridden communities is simply a matter of refusing to tolerate “violence,” rather than a complex equation with serious logistical, political and philosophical issues to resolve. Worst of all, it endorses the Virginia Tech killer’s warped sense of equivalencies, whereby the isolation and rejection he experienced on campus was processed as “violence” in his scarred mind, justifying a violent response. But rejection isn’t violence either, though by Senator Obama’s generous formula it probably qualifies, along with any other misfortune from losing one’s remote control to getting the hiccups.

The Scoreboard would be on firmer ground than Obama if it said that his exploitive use of the Virginia Tech shootings to make cheap political points about persistent social problems (and the verbal gaffe of a radio shock jock) did “violence” to the concept of legitimate political discourse. But it will not: Obama’s comments weren’t violent, just indefensible, insensitive, manipulative and dumb. One thing about the events in Blacksburg: they should make it crystal clear what real violence looks like. If Barack Obama really doesn’t know what violence means after that, he’s not the candidate he’s cracked up to be.

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