On Saturday, 22-year-old Jared Lee Loughner shot 19 people and killed six, perhaps seven if Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords’ critical condition worsens. Even in the face of such despicable recent comments as Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele’s suggestion that his constituents place former Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi in “the firing line,” it is not yet clear whether a conscious toning-down of expressly violent political rhetoric in the face of such despicable comments could have prevented Saturday’s shooting. Just as we may never know if the ridiculous map Sarah Palin distributed last year—which placed crosshairs over the regions where Democratic officials were up for re-election (including Giffords’)—helped incite Loughner to act on his desire to kill his congresswoman. But that’s not the point. There’s no use in waiting to decide whether a new, more considerate approach to campaigning would prevent future attacks on government officials—instead, both Steele and Howard Dean, chairman of the Democratic Party, should denounce violence-laden campaign language immediately on the basis that it is unnecessary, unethical and un-American, period.
So-called “conservative” commentators on American TV and radio have repeatedly engaged in distracting tattletale-ism (“Democrats say cruel things, too,” a former Republican congressman said on NPR) and outright silliness (“in the early 1800s, rhetoric was much more violent,” a Republican aide said on C-SPAN).
First of all, precedent is not justification. And during heated presidential races in the 19th century, political fanatics did not have access to semiautomatic weapons. Nor did they have the 24-hour news cycle or elevated hate-mongers such Bill O’Reilly—who calls people who don’t agree with him “loonies” and yells at them to “shut up!”—and Glenn Beck—who regularly compares President Barack Obama, a Democrat whose minimally progressive policies virtually mirror those supported by the Republican party before Christian extremists hijacked it in the early 1980s, with Adolf Hitler. After the health care bill was passed early last year, Beck told his massive conservative audience, “The war is just beginning.”
Second, Democratic legislators and left-leaning talking heads do use inflamed rhetoric when speaking out against Republican officials and policies. They repeatedly called George W. Bush a liar, a thief, an idiot and a war criminal, for instance. However, I challenge right-wingers to find an instance in which a Democratic official urged his or her constituents to be “armed and dangerous,” as Republican star Rep. Michele Bachman said last year.
Likewise, I challenge readers to list a moment when a Democratic leader publicly referred to Republicans as “domestic enemies,” as popular Senatorial candidate Sharron Angle said of some liberal members of Congress a few months ago. She also ruminated on whether disgruntled right-wingers should use “Second Amendment remedies” to help win elections. Even if she meant it in jest, when you put yourself in the mind of a feverishly overzealous and/or deranged political mind, it’s easy to translate Angle’s comment as, “To help us win, find out where Democratic officials are making public appearances and then go shoot them.”
Alas, at the end of the day, six people in Arizona were killed at a Safeway on Saturday morning because a terribly ill young man focused his warped anger on a congresswoman whose views differed from his own. That same day, Tucson Sheriff Clarence Dupnik told an audience of millions that “the anger, the hatred and the bigotry that goes on in this country ... the violent rhetoric we hear from people in the radio business and some people in the TV business” was partly to blame and definitely needs to stop. There certainly isn’t anything positive that can come from gun metaphors and rampant incitements of hatred and bigotry.
People whose views differ from ours are still people, and using violent rhetoric in talking about them or to them is wrong in every case. John M. Roll, the federal judge who was killed alongside five other Arizonans on Saturday, required security recently, after receiving a pile of death threats following a talk-radio station’s hate-filled rant against his decision to allow the state’s harsh immigration law to be questioned in court. Such vitriol, and its consequences—which Rep. Giffords herself warned of last fall—does not have to continue in America. Let’s recognize the tragedy in Arizona not as a time to choose sides or win political points but as a chance to temper future disagreements—in print, online, on television, on the radio, in the halls of Congress and even simply between friends—with honesty, compassion and understanding.