Stephen Reader covers politics for It's a Free Country, WNYC's interactive politics site. He joined the station in 2010 and has also worked for Studio 360, WNYC's Peabody Award-winning show about art, culture, and creativity.
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, Eric Alterman, columnist for The Nation and senior fellow at the Center for American Progress; Matt Bai, writer of the Political Times column for The New York Times; and Bill Pascrell, U.S. Congressman (D-NJ8) discussed whether anyone in politics or the media should share responsibility for the Arizona shooting.
In the United States, no tragedy goes un-politicized.
At least, that's how it feels. In the wake of this weekend's mass shooting and attempted assassination of a U.S. Congresswoman, a lot of the discussion has centered around the likes of Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck and the Tea Party. Their words, often replete with violent imagery, have gotten as much, if not more, attention than Jared Lee Loughner's actions: Sharron Angle's "Second Amendment remedies;" Beck's nightly lecture on the Revolutionary War; Palin's "Don't retreat—reload!" and the now-infamous cross-hairs map.
When someone like Loughner shoots en elected official at point-blank range, do these people bear any responsibility?
Eric Alterman thinks so. He said that while you can't blame a media figure's rhetoric for the actions of an unstable individual, it's equally unreasonable to believe that Loughner existed in a vacuum.
We don't live in a society of only sane people. We live in a society with lots of disturbed people who have access to an amazing amount of firearms. The weapon he used was originally banned under the Clinton crime bill, a ban that only lasted 10 years. Then you have all these kinds of hints from Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin, and others that would lead people to think they are talking about violence, even if they only mean it metaphorically.
To concede that one's bread and butter may have fertilized murder is anathema for media personalities. It doesn't help anyone's case that one could never say conclusively, "It was when so-and-so said X that Loughner decided to pick up a gun." However, that hasn't stopped loads of politicians, commentators, and random internet voices from attempting to lay blame at the feet of someone behind a microphone. Alterman held that it's time for the media—specifically, Fox News—to recognize their contribution to the unstable social and political climate.
These guys don't take any responsibility for the implications of what they say. If you look at their exact words, sure, they're not inciting anyone to violence on purpose. But it's very easy to understand how someone who's not entirely rational would read them that way...I think people should be held responsible, both for what they say and what they empower.
Matt Bai voiced similar concerns, but was careful to point out that it's not purely a right-wing problem. Whether it's violent imagery from conservatives, mockery from liberals, or any other artifice people use to get their point across, the order of the day is exaggeration and anxiety.
All of this bleeds into the mood, and the atmosphere in the country, the sense of urgency. It's the difference between having a debate and political philosophy, and constantly communicating to people, who are unstable and who are on the fringe or who feel deeply threatened and frustrated, that this is the Armageddon, and the fate of the Republic and the fate of our children rests on it. That kind of overheated rhetoric is on cable TV every night, the blogs of both ideologies every night. That kind of rhetoric inevitably leads people to see themselves as actors in a grand human historic drama, in a way that I think becomes closely linked to a tendency toward violence.
That's a problem both sides of the political spectrum need to address. It's not a conservative issue or a liberal issue, Bai said, but a societal one. Less time should be spent arguing about who's to blame, and more attention should be given to how we can permanently improve our dialogue.
We have as a society gotten away from the value of our words. It's a lot easier to get words around than it used to be, there's a lot more of them out there, we tend to think they don't matter, and we tend to think you have to exaggerate to be heard. It's not healthy...It is a time to reevaluate all of our rhetoric, and the difference between portraying your enemies as philosophical opponents or actual enemies, as actually human adversaries. For the left to say, that's not their problem—I think it's a cop-out and I don't think it's helpful.
Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-NJ8) was equally certain that violent rhetoric from media figures and politicians contributed to the Loughner incident. Like Bai, he also made it clear that calling it a liberal or conservative problem misses the point. He said that we need a fundamental change in the way we debate, and that it has to happen at home, not just on television or Capitol Hill.
I'm very encouraged that I see people coming together from all sides. I think we need to lower our voices and raise our commitment to what real democracy is all about. The government can't solve this problem. It can't pass gun legislation or any other kind of legislation that's going to automatically make things better. People in the community have to make things better. We have to have a real solidarity.
Gun control will undoubtedly become a renewed issue once the shock of the shooting wears off. Already bubbling up is the revelation that Loughner used a firearm with an extended magazine that would have once been illegal. A crime bill enacted by President Clinton, which the government chose not to extend when it expired in 2004, prohibited clips as large as the one Loughner had. Given that the shooter was subdued while reloading, critics have pointed out that Loughner may have caused less damage had he run out of ammunition sooner. When asked about what effect the shooting would have on gun control legislation, Rep. Pascrell cautioned that it wasn't yet appropriate to discuss the issue, but stricter measures would almost certainly be on the table in the future.
I think the Second Amendment is sacred, but I don't think everybody should be toting. I don't think the states that don't allow us to carry are states living in the 18th century. I think the Justice Department has to do its job, and the NRA has to do its job. I think if you bring up the tangible firearms legislation at this particular moment, when we're grieving and trying to pull together—it's almost like bringing health care up this week, and we put that off. I'd ask us to have cool heads. But that doesn't mean we won't support some kind of control. Don't forget, this gun would not have been on the street if that 2004 extension had occurred.
Listen to the conversation with Eric Alterman.
Listen to the conversation with Matt Bai.
Listen to the conversation with Rep. Bill Pascrell.