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Two seemingly unrelated events from last Sunday night: the shooting of Congresswoman Giffords and Derren Brown’s The Heist was on TV in the UK. Let me tie them together.

First, for those who aren’t familiar with Derren Brown, he is a brilliant magician, illusionist, hypnotist, and “mind reader”. If you watch his shows, you’ll see that he is a master of psychological techniques. On The Heist, the show that I watched last night, he did something quite extraordinary: he got three middle-class professionals to commit armed robbery– voluntarily. Well, a simulation of an armed robbery anyway. If you haven’t seen Derren Brown, you’re probably thinking that he used actors or accomplices. I don’t think that this was the case. They were mid-level consultants and managerial types. No criminal records. Decent folk. They were probably most unusual in that they were more suggestible than the average person and were quite deferential to authority. All in all, not armed robbery kind of people. Pretty ordinary, in fact.

What was extraordinary was what Derren Brown did with them. In a word, he brainwashed them.

Over the course of just two weeks, he implanted a series of signals and messages to program these people into doing something they never would have imagined. The whole thing started off disguised as a motivational seminar for a large group of carefully chosen individuals. During the seminar, he planted certain triggers in their heads that would subconsciously prime them for the big event; he subtly linked together colours, music, words, and symbols with different emotional states. He eventually whittled down the group to four people to do the experiment and continued to work with them to develop something within them to overcome several important social norms: you don’t shoot people and you don’t steal. In the end , three of the four committed armed robbery.

Right after I finished watching the show, I read about the shooting of Congresswoman Giffords. I couldn’t help but think that the way in which Derren Brown had “programmed” his subjects into committing armed robbery was not dissimilar from the inflamed political atmosphere that seems to have overtaken American politics these days. Colours, moods, code words, symbols (like Sarah Palin’s infamous crosshairs map)– all were employed to turn the “other” political party into an enemy. Us vs. Them. Leaders of ethnic parties in new democracies do it all the time to consolidate their support- sometimes, the result is civil war.

In simple terms, Republicans have “programmed” their supporters into thinking that the Democrats are evil. And Democrats have done the same, though perhaps not quite as fervently, or as successfully. Matt Bai gives us some of these examples in his NY Times article:

Consider the comments of Sharron Angle, the Tea Party favorite who unsuccessfully ran against Harry Reid for the Senate in Nevada last year. She talked about “domestic enemies” in the Congress and said, “I hope we’re not getting to Second Amendment remedies.” Then there’s Rick Barber, a Republican who lost his primary in a Congressional race in Alabama, but not before airing an ad in which someone dressed as George Washington listened to an attack on the Obama agenda and gravely proclaimed, “Gather your armies.”

Here is a political ad from Rep Giffords’ opponent in the last election, Jesse Kelly. I do *not* think that he intended anything violent by it, but it says a lot about how uncivil American politics has become.

Sheriff Charles Dupnik of Pima County, Arizona (where the shooting took place) had this to say:

I think it’s time as a country we need to do a little soul searching because I think that the vitriolic rhetoric that we hear day in and day out from the people in the radio business, and some people in the T.V. business, and what we see on T.V. and how are youngsters are being raised.  It may be free speech but it does not come without consequences.  Arizona has become the Mecca of prejudice and bigotry.

He then goes on to name Sharron Angle and Sarah Palin for contributing to the “political vitriol”.

In an interview with MSNBC in March 2010, Representative Gabrielle Giffords reacts to having the front window of her constituency office smashed or shot out. She sounds calm, measured, and resilient. She responds exactly how I would have hoped for her to respond: with levity, appealing for dialogue, and by pointing out that violence is not the answer.

With hindsight, she sounds prophetic:

We’re on Sarah Palin’s targeted list, but the thing is the way that she has it depicted has the cross hairs of a gun sight over our district. When people do that, they’ve got to realize there’s consequences to that.

Some will try and chalk this up as isolated incident, the work of one teenager with serious mental health problems. I would argue that the this shooting has been a decade in the making. The utter polarization of American political life has gone on now for a good ten years, ever since the Bush-Gore election. In the two years since Obama has been in power, the situation has definitely gotten worse. But you can’t create these kinds of explosive political conditions and then act surprised when someone who is mentally unbalanced seizes your message and totally goes off the rails. How many other mentally ill people are there out there who are willing to act out their delusional fantasies and are being primed to do so? Politicians and powerful media personalities just don’t seem to realize that what they say can have a powerful effect- especially in the aggregate.

Remember that one of the most powerful things that the Interhamwe did in the lead-up to the Rwandan genocide was to use propaganda (for example, via the Milles Collines  radio station) to insult them, degrade them, accuse them of crimes they had not committed, and generally, to blame everything on them and dehumanize them in the process. This message of hate tapped into real historical grievances and had been cultivated by the Hutu elite for years, with a particular intensity in the months leading up to the genocide. When the time came to begin killing, many Hutus picked up their machetes willingly and hacked their neighbours to death. Not all of them, but enough of them to kill 800,000 fellow citizens.

The lesson here is this: political rhetoric is a powerful thing.

And it has become even more so in the age of 24-7 news, Facebook, Twitter, and instant communications. Individuals no longer have to confront the truths of the other side because it is possible to live in a bubble where everyone around you sees the world in exactly the same way as you do. Even the hyper-radical can look online for affirmation of their views of the world. And perhaps that is how Jared Loughner chose to live. Given that he has invokedhis Fifth Amendment rights, it’s hard to say right now. What we know about Jared Loughner suggests that he was mentally unbalanced, that he used to be a left-wing radical,that his current beliefs are consistent with a strand of Tea Party thinking, and that he was paranoid about the government. At this moment, it looks like he chose to act on his political beliefs. Maybe he even thought that he was doing his country a favour.

But what I learned from watching Derren Brown is that Jared Loughner might be less of an exception than we all would like to think. If three of four upstanding British citizens can be brainwashed into voluntarily committing armed robbery in two weeks of “motivational therapy” sessions, then what has been the impact of years and years of escalating invective on the American political sphere? Given that people have been primed to think the worst about those on the other side of the political spectrum, it is no wonder that there is Congressional deadlock. But is there the potential for further extreme political violence? Absolutely.

There is only one way out of this mess: Republicans and Democrats need to show each other some respect.

They do not need to agree with other, but they need to learn how to respectfully disagree with each other. They can no longer afford to demonize each other in the name of political expdiency. If they forget, they need to remind themselves of what Gabrielle Giffords herself said:

Our democracy is a light, a beacon, around the world because we affect change at the ballot box and not because of these… outbursts of violence in certain cases.

There is a fine line between peaceful protest and freedom of expression. All of us missed the warning signs that American political rhetoric had begun to spiral out of control. Now that line has clearly been crossed. The time has come for a new politics.

Christine Cheng is the Bennett Boskey Fellow in Politics and International Relations at Exeter College, University of Oxford. She conducts research on post-conflict transitions, natural resources, corruption, African politics, and women in politics.

This article was first posted by Christine Cheng on her blog on 9 January 2011. Politics in Spires is grateful for her permission to reproduce it here.



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