Getting shot is a great career move for a politician. Especially if the shooting isn't fatal. As Maricopa County Supervisor Mary Rose Wilcox lay in her hospital bed after being shot last Wednesday, her pain must have been eased by the massive political gains.
The Arizona Republic, which in the past has supported Wilcox's political opponents, practically canonized her after the shooting, declaring her a "powerful public figure . . . for whom there are no little issues." One bullet in the ass, and suddenly, she's a heroic champion of the people.
Media discussion in the days following the shooting has been infantile even by Phoenix standards. Wilcox laid the blame for what happened to her at the feet of "hate radio," suggesting that vilification of her by talk-show hosts incited a drifter named Larry Naman to try to kill her. Wilcox at least has an excuse for such stupidity--she was medicated and probably in shock. She is also notoriously dense--local wags have suggested that she needed a neurosurgeon to treat her injury--but, compared with the commentators of the Republic, she is a cerebral giant.
The intellectual lightweights jumped up to assume their usual positions--David Leibowitz the blustering fascist told us that it wasn't fair to blame talk radio because Wilcox's liberal stances on such issues as police brutality made her a demagogue as bad as KFYI's Bob Mohan, Wilcox's chief detractor. Leibowitz forgot to mention his own fondness for appearing on KFYI. And, showing his usual sparkling journalistic form, he evaded the issue that motivated Wilcox's assailant--that she did nothing to stop the railroading of the Bank One Ballpark, and that she voted in favor of a sales tax to pay for it. Could the Republic owning part of the Diamondbacks have been a factor in this oversight?
E.J. Montini, the sentimental liberal drama queen, whined that talk radio must be held responsible, citing Mohan's calling Wilcox "evil," despite there being no evidence to suggest that Naman had ever listened to KFYI.
Keven Willey, poster girl for preppy conservatism, dismissed both sides, saying the shooting was simply a random act by a lunatic.
They've all missed the point. Although it was amusing to listen to Bob Mohan bleat that it wasn't his fault, he's right. He has about as much political influence and credibility as Jerry Springer. People like Mohan are inconsequential, sleazy entertainers who appeal only to the bigoted know-nothings who listen to their shows. These listeners are not people whose opinions are altered by exposure to debate--they have to be bigots by the time they tune in to his show, or they wouldn't be able to stomach it. Repugnant though Mohan certainly is, he doesn't matter.
Here are two questions, and their answers, that do matter: Did Mary Rose Wilcox, wife, mother and grandmother, deserve to get shot?
Of course not.
Did Wilcox the county supervisor deserve to get shot in the ass?
At first examination, Wilcox appears to be an admirable public figure, someone who follows her moral conscience rather than echo popular opinion. She has taken difficult positions, earning the hatred of the Phoenix police union by speaking out after the police officers shot and killed Julio Valerio and Rudy Buchanan.
But closer examination reveals a political opportunist. Her street-level politics are well-received in her South Phoenix constituency, the only Democratic stronghold in the county. When a Latino child is ventilated by the police, what better way to gain support in a Latino district than to criticize the shooters?
Among those in the know, Wilcox is noted not for her integrity but her arrogance. South Phoenix is considered by many to be controlled by the Wilcox political machine. Comparisons with old Chicago have been drawn.
Wilcox's constant use of the word "community" begins to ring hollow when you look at her political realities. People in her constituency have needs that are far more urgent than the building of her cohort Jerry Colangelo's ballpark. (Did you notice that Wilcox didn't demand to be hospitalized at Maricopa Medical Center, the county's underfunded hospital that caters largely to the poor?) Wilcox must have been afraid that her constituents would understand this, because she raised no objection when they were denied the opportunity to vote on the stadium tax. Instead, she was one of Colangelo's biggest cheerleaders. She claimed that her constituents knew that her decision was about the creation of jobs. In spite of her rhetoric, few of the jobs in the building of the stadium went to minorities or women. Wilcox showed contempt for the citizens she's supposed to represent.
This is the reason Larry Naman gave for doing what he did. He said he wanted "to restore democracy on the noncandidate side of the ballot in Maricopa County."
Art Kauffman of the antistadium group Citizens' Right to Vote emphasizes that he doesn't approve of Naman's action. "I don't think that's the way to solve any political problem," he says. "I think his sentiments were all right, but his action was all wrong. He felt strongly, as most of us do, that Jerry Colangelo and the Board of Supervisors and the Legislature are not doing what is right for the citizens. The public feels very, very strongly about that tax and that ballpark. But the way to solve these problems is through the ballot, not the bullet."
All attempts to refer the stadium tax to voters were rebuffed by the courts and bureaucracy.
What happens when people are denied access to the ballot? It's harder to deny them access to the bullet. It's not possible to deny people a voice. When politicians attempt to do so, there will be different types of resistance by different types of people. Some will write letters to newspapers. Others will take to the streets in protest. And a few marginal, alienated individuals will express their discontent through the barrel of a gun.
It's easy to dismiss such a person as a madman. But madness doesn't exist in a vacuum. We label people like Larry Naman as crazy--but their craziness is only in the extreme nature of their actions. Our wackos, our madmen, reflect the feeling of the society they live in. A person like Larry Naman doesn't just happen. Like fungus, he's produced by a certain climate. Not many of us would take a gun to a political meeting and use it to shoot another person. But how many of us haven't felt like it? How many of us can read the papers and watch the news without having at least the occasional violent fantasy involving certain public officials? How many of us don't ever think that we're getting screwed and that there's nothing we can do about it? Nothing legal, anyway . . .
The most shocking thing about Naman is the intelligence and understanding of the issues he showed in his statement to the press after being arrested.
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Another voice from the margins sounds an equally ominous note. The Libertarian party is often regarded as a social club for cranks, but, at a time like this, it's hard to refute its logic. "When you eliminate all peaceful alternatives . . . ballot box, jury box--or cartridge box," says Ernie Hancock, a party activist. "Libertarian philosophy is about exhausting every single peaceful means to regain our freedoms. But you cannot stop the people from rendering their own version of justice. Those that are frail of mind or spirit will be the first ones to go over the edge. We will not be those people, but we guarantee that they exist. When this guy shoots Mary Rose in the butt, we do not advocate it--but, at the same time, it does not surprise us. In fact, we predicted it. It is inevitable that there will be violence. It won't be us--there will be plenty of other people who're much less imaginative and much less devoted to peace. The violence will start small, and it will grow. And it's all due to the fact that you are violating the rights of individual people and eliminating peaceful alternatives."
Wilcox, and others in power, seriously underestimated the level of public outrage surrounding the ballpark. They believed their positions of privilege would forever insulate them. Larry Naman committed an outrageous crime, and pierced the insulation.
I wish Mary Rose Wilcox well, as we all should. I'm sorry for the pain she has suffered, and the pain she still faces. I did not enjoy the image of her in a hospital bed--but I could not help but take some satisfaction from it. It was her own arrogance that put her there, and what happened to her should serve as a lesson to her and everyone else. Our elected representatives should stop talking about increasing security and start thinking about eliminating the need for such security.
Contact Barry Graham at his online address: firstname.lastname@example.org