Is There a Link Between Violent Rhetoric and the Arizona Shooting?

Monday, January 10, 2011 - 10:28 AM

Sarah Palin puts what looks like a target on a district in Arizona on her website. Her Tea Party opponent holds "Get on Target" campaign events and invites voters to "Help remove Gabrielle Giffords from office — shoot a fully automatic M16 with Jesse Kelly." A disturbed young man in Arizona attends an event with a congresswoman and opens fire with fully automatic Glock. Is there a direct connection between the savage rhetoric and the brutal attack?

I hesitate to make any connections while we know so little about the shooter and his motives. Others have not only rushed to blame, but have even started to use this tragic event as yet another political playing card. Marty Kaplan of USC's Annenberg School of Communications has been writing eloquently about the shooting. In an editorial yesterday, he wrote, "As of Saturday, the new story connected the dots between the inflammatory rhetoric of McCain/Palin events in 2008, the ugly confrontations at congressional town halls in the summer of 2009, the ‘lock and load’ cackling of the 2010 campaign — and the cultural climate of the Tucson murders. Within the space of a few hours, the story had been transformed from a revenge narrative (Obama brought low) to a soul-searching meta-narrative: How has our society come to this season in hell, and what must be done to heal us?"

I can't imagine that anyone believes Sarah Palin wished any harm to come to Gabrielle Giffords, or that her opponent in the election literally intended that someone should remove the congresswoman from office with a fully automatic weapon. Nor do I think that Sharron Angle's "second amendment remedy" was anything other than misguided campaign language intended to fire up the crowd. No one is to blame for this attack except the shooter himself.

Tragically, there are disturbed narcissistic individuals living among us at all times. It is sadly inevitable that some of them will end up taking innocent lives. While we mourn the victims and grieve the lives that have been cut short, we can't allow our pain and outrage to make us look for more scapegoats. The question is not only why did Jared Loughner kill, but why did he try to kill a politician? And why are so many people threatening violence against our lawmakers? In the first few months of 2010, threats against members of Congress tripled.

Let the investigation against Loughner go forward without complicating it. But let's take this opportunity to talk calmly about how vitriol against anyone can be misinterpreted. In politics, it's not an arms race; it's a race to the most damning sound bite. News programs sometimes compete to book the most inflammatory guest they can find. "The vitriolic rhetoric that we hear day in and day out from people in the radio business and some people in the TV business," says Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik, "That may be free speech, but it's not without consequences."

Only Jared Loughner has to answer for the six lives that were lost on Saturday. But whether politics played into his motives or not, we all have to answer for clumping people together into political groups so we can more easily condemn them, and for tolerating the kind of language that would get a 7th-grader sent to the principal. Maybe you have never said "Kill all the right-wingers" or "String up those idiot liberals," but we've all heard someone say things like that and we often don’t protest.

There were a total of twenty victims of Jared Loughner's hatred. Six paid the ultimate price and their lives were taken for no good reason. Their deaths simply cannot be compared with the metaphoric death of political civility. But if we’re going to talk about rhetoric, then we can turn away from this tragedy and toward courtesy. On that front, there are millions of victims of our complacency and thirst for conflict in news. Our democracy is in critical condition, and the way to denounce violent rhetoric is not to engage in some of our own.

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Comments [3]

John Zawada from Canada

Perhaps the question should be Just how much influence did the Lock and Load rhetoric (so near and dear to the hearts of many americans,the gun culture the right to bear arms the N.R.A. You'll have to pry my rifle/gun from my cold dead hands ala C. Heston mentality) resonate with this man who shot up the political rally of a tea party opponent? Please, make no mistake I am a Canadian who is watching this unfold with just as much repugnance as any American equally shocked by this madness. Sheer insanity like this transcends borders, and my symapthy goes out to all the victims of this horrendous crime. I am however stunned by the political fodder being made of this by any political party to gain points. I know politics can be a dirty bussiness we have our very own circus in Ottawa, complete with too many clowns running things. My greatest hope here is that the guns are put aside use your votes to shape your future not your guns.

Jan. 11 2011 10:08 AM
Kim Bunting from Dallas, Texas

Directly blaming the vitriol is not logical. But did it contribute? We've certainly moved the line of what is ok to say as a public figure. The past election included comments and actions that I could not believe were tolerated.

But, what else contributed? Why didn't he get mental health services? Have we cut funding so low that people with obvious issues don't get the help they need?

Have we cut police funding so low that we can't afford protection at events? Have we created laws that enhance an unstable person's ability to open fire?

The political rhetoric is one piece of many that we should consider as contributing factors.

Jan. 10 2011 03:57 PM
Marty Kohn from Huntington Woods, Michigan

Newt Gingrich used to rail continuously about how the government is the enemy. When some deranged folks took him seriously and blew up a federal building in Oklahoma City, Gingrich dropped that rant in a hearbeat; even he recognized the connection between an influential person's hyperbolic rhetoric and a disturbed person's actions.

Jan. 10 2011 12:58 PM

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