The Fisher King, the Rolling Stones and What They Tell Us about an American Tragedy

In the opening scenes of the 1991 movie The Fisher King, a radio talk show host named Jack Lucas tells a caller that the clientele in a popular New York nightspot are repulsed by everything America stands for and that they “must be stopped before it’s too late.”

Later that night, the caller goes to the nightspot with a shotgun, kills seven people, and then turns the gun on himself. Lucas then becomes so devastated about the unintended consequences of his words that he attempts to take his own life.

The Fisher King is a work of fiction, but there are interesting parallels to the tragic events that unfolded in Arizona last weekend. There also are parallels in a movie that is not fiction – Gimme Shelter, a documentary about the Rolling Stones’ 1969 tour that includes a graphic scene in which a Hells Angel member kills a young man attending a free Stones’ concert at the Altamont Speedway in California.

At the time the film was made, the band was taking its bad boy image to a new level with songs such as “Sympathy for the Devil” and an album titled Their Satanic Majesties Request, so it seemed perfectly in character to have the Hells Angels provide security at Altamont.

But the film shows a different side of Jagger. His image changes from bad boy to that of a young man becoming increasingly troubled and visibly frightened by the real violence escalating in the crowd as he performs at Altamont.

What do these two old movies have to do with the shooting rampage that took place in Tuscon? In both films, deadly violence occurred after – not because of – words and actions from the films’ protagonists. The fictional Jack Lucas tells a caller to put a stop to something; the real-life Jagger creates a devilish persona that becomes part of his recordings and performances.

Both men are deeply impacted by the violence. This is where the parallel to last weekend’s events begins. We live in an era of polarization and sharp, sometimes bitter partisanship. As a nation, the violence in Arizona has caused us to think long and hard about the nature of political discourse in America.

This is not to suggest that the rhetoric and actions – of either the left or the right – are what led Jared Lee Loughner to open fire at U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords’ “Congress on Your Corner” meeting. From all indications, Loughner is a troubled young man, and it is unclear what ultimately prompted him to pull the trigger. As former President Clinton told the BBC: “No one intends to do anything that encourages this sort of behavior, but political rhetoric falls on the unhinged and the hinged alike.”

By and large, the American people are reacting to the violence much the same as Lucas and Jagger. We are saddened and troubled, and we see this as a wake-up call to re-examine the way we interact with each other, especially those with whom we disagree.

Unfortunately, those most responsible for lowering the level of political discourse in America have reacted differently. Politicians, pundits and commentators – from both the left and the right — have responded by launching verbal attacks, assigning blame and defending their words and actions. Few if any appear to be having second thoughts about what they do.

This scenario is emblematic of a larger gap that exists in our nation – a growing gap between the citizenry and the men and women who run the country. Many years ago, in his 1925 book The Phantom Public, Walter Lippmann warned of the dangers of this gap when he observed: “The private citizen today has come to feel rather like a deaf spectator in the back row… He lives in a world which he cannot see, does not understand and is unable to direct.”

Last November, a number of successful Republican candidates ran on a platform of “taking back America.” Ironically, Barack Obama sounded a similar theme in his campaign for the presidency in 2008.

Both parties are right. We do need to take back America – not from Democrats or Republicans – but from a political establishment which is losing touch with the people it was elected to serve.

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