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

Email a Friend

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.