What The Tuscon Massacre Means For Washington

Welcome to Politics Bites, where every afternoon at It's a Free Country, we bring you the unmissable quotes from the morning's political conversations on WNYC. Today on the Brian Lehrer Show, Jonathan Alter, correspondent for Newsweek and a columnist for Bloomberg News and The Daily Beast, and James Fallows, national correspondent for The Atlantic, talked about the Arizona shootings and the possible consequences of inflammatory political demagoguery. Congresswoman Carolyn McCarthy (D-NY 4) and Rep. Eliot Engle (D-NY 17) also called in to talk about how the shootings should change Washington rhetoric, but not deter officials from doing their jobs.

As the country reels from Saturday's assasination attempt on Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords in Tucson, Arizona, a tragic event that killed six people, wounded 14 and left the Congresswoman in critical condition, citizens are trying to grasp the implications and roots of the attack.

Was it the vitriolic political rhetoric of the past few years, including Sarah Palin's image of crosshairs on Giffords' district, that drove troubled 22 year-old Jared L. Loughner to unleash his semiautomatic on an innocent crowd? Or was this simply and sadly the result of a disturbed individual, following a twisted personal logic?

On January 8, hours after the tragedy, Fallows wrote a blog post titled The Cloudy Logic of 'Political' Shootings, in which he said that even though it's often difficult to connect the dots between an attacker's motives to the actual beliefs or actions of a victim, "shootings of political figures are by definition 'political,'" that is why we call them 'assassinations' as opposed to 'murder.'" On the Brian Lehrer Show, Fallows listed a number of historical examples of when a bad political climate pushed disturbed individuals to violence (Gandhi, President Kennedy) and suggests that Giffords' incident might be another one.

In this case, it is at least legitimate to look at the possible connection between the surrounding political rhetoric and the act of a deranged and violent person.

Today at 11:00 am eastern time, a moment of silence was observed to honor the victims of the shootings. Jonathan Alter says this is a good start because we need to make "less noise" for a while. But that's not enough, he said. We need to stop tolerating hateful language on both the right and the left.

This doesn't mean we need censorship. It doesn't mean that nobody ever again should use any kind of a military or war-like metaphor... but people do need to be conscious that at a certain point as President Clinton said last year on the 15th anniversary of Oklahoma City, you don't know how these words are going to affect not just the serious but the delirious, and the interaction of hate speech and underlying mental illness can be a very potent combination.

Fallows went a step further, saying this is a moment when people who have used extreme imagery should stand up and say they condemn this type of act. (Sarah Palin did remove the image of crosshairs on Giffords' district from her website.)

One good thing that may come of the tragedy, Alter said, is that Congresswoman Giffords will likely live and she'll be a living reminder of what violent rhetoric and lax gun laws can create. 

Normally if there's a shooting and a death, then everybody mourns the victims and they move on pretty quickly, but if you have a living reminder of the consequences of allowing guns into the hands of the mentally ill, the consequences indirect as they may be of over-the-top rhetoric, then you can see a situation where Gabby Giffords could become a very important national figure who is almost a high credibility referee on some of these issues.

Fallows stressed that we should not let freedom of speech or Democracy be casualties of the catastrophe.

I think the proper response from the citizenry to this episode, in addition to everything else we do about political rhetoric and gun laws and everything else, is to reassert our ability to live and act as free, non-fearful people.

How Washington responds is another issue. In the short-term, all Congressional votes have been cancelled for this week, including one on a repeal of the health care reform bill. Both members of Congress who spoke on the Brian Lehrer Show, Eliot Engle (D-NY) and Congresswoman Carolyn McCarthy (D-NY) said the tragedy would not deter them from doing their jobs, which involves being in public and meeting with constituents who may have differing views. McCarthy said the Arizona shooting will not change her behavior as a Congresswoman and it is the responsibility of politicians to combatting rhetoric that crosses the line.

There are a lot of angry people out there. I understand certainly their anger on a lot of issues, with the economy we have been going through. We see child abuse and domestic abuse unfortunately going up and those are signs of stress and when people are totally stressed out they do very very foolish things. With that being said, I think politicans do have, in my opinion, a strong responsiblity to set the tone at these debates and meetings and I think putting rhetoric out there does not help the situation.

McCarthy also said she would ensure that gun control is part of the conversation after the attack. (Arizona has some of the most lax gun laws in the country.) Later this week, she'll be introducing legislation to cut back on large capacity clips for guns, which may have been used in the Arizona shooting and were used in the shooting of her husband and son in the Long Island Railroad massacre in 1993. But McCarthy confessed it is difficult to legislate restricted gun access for mentally ill people, because there is no easy way to regulate it.

Listen to the whole Brian Lehrer Episode: