Whatever motivation Jared Lee Loughner had in the attempted assassination of U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords — an event that left six dead and 14 wounded — his actions have caused a long overdue examination of the implicitly violent rhetoric that has long dominated debate in the United States.
This rhetoric certainly hit a crescendo in 2009, when town hall meetings about health care reform were reduced to shouting matches and congressional offices — including Giffords’ being vandalized. It has abated only now, in the wake of tragedy. Most mainstream media outlets in recent days have, appropriately, begun to discuss the implications of the vitriol that has come to dominate political discourse.
The Republican Party and its allies in the media, including Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, and Sarah Palin, have rightly been criticized for their use of violent imagery and metaphor in the arguments they use against their opponents. Their attempts to remove themselves from any responsibility for their words and actions is both deceitful and reprehensible.
Whether it was Beck musing about how he wanted to assassinate documentary filmmaker Michael Moore, or Palin placing a gunsight over Gifford’s district and telling her supporters not to “retreat, but to reload,” these statements were irresponsible, dangerous, and contributed to a toxic political environment. Sharron Angle’s musings on “Second Amendment remedies” or Jesse Kelly’s now infamous gun event ad: “Get on Target for Victory in November. Help remove Gabrielle Giffords from office. Shoot a fully automatic M16 with Jesse Kelly,” are further instances of the implied violence Republicans have directed against their opponents.
Palin, who many have floated as a possible Republican presidential nominee in 2012, received most of the criticism. After a few days of silence, she came out with a seven-minute video attacking her critics, accusing them of what she called “blood libel.” She said that incidents like the Tucson, Arizona shooting “begin and end with the criminals who commit them, not collectively with all the citizens of a state.” In her statement, she emphasized that both parties have used maps to illustrate areas with a high concentration of swing votes. However, she failed to address the fact that she was alone in placing crosshairs above opposition districts.
Trying to find a causal connection between Loughner’s actions and violent political rhetoric is the wrong approach. Laying the blame squarely on particular people (i.e. Palin, Limbaugh, or Beck) or movements (i.e. the Tea Party) is often counter-factual and is perhaps inappropriate considering the atmosphere of heightened emotion. The real story is that it took an attempted political assassination to shed light on the dysfunctional state of US political discourse; a discourse which often features conservative pundits and politicians suggesting their opponents are both “un-American” and that mildly liberal government policies are equivalent to a fascist takeover of the country. These kind of combative tendencies were evident in Palin’s statement, where she spent the majority of her time lambasting her critics as opposed to offering leadership amidst widespread anxiety. Contrastingly, President Obama memorialized the victims in a speech that had him lauded by political commentators for his sympathetic tone and high emphasis on healing and restraint from squabble.
New Yorker Staff Writer George Packer was right when he wrote in his personal blog: “[T]he tragedy wouldn’t change this basic fact: for the past two years, many conservative leaders, activists, and media figures have made a habit of trying to delegitimize their political opponents.” In the discourse of Limbaugh, Beck, Palin, and the Tea Party, liberals are not just wrong; they are traitors and enemies of the country.
As Nobel Laureate Economist Paul Krugman argued in his January 9 op-ed in the New York Times, there is a difference between insult and incitement. It’s one thing to see your opponent’s views as confused or ridiculous. It’s another to insinuate violence against them or prescribe motives of tyranny. And while employing the language of violence is common in any competitive arena — consider the world of sports, as an example — political discourse carries an extra layer of importance: the state of people’s lives is almost always the topic of discussion.