There's been no evidence to link today’s toxic political environment with Jared Loughner’s decision to use his gun last weekend. But the question persists: what has the aggressive rhetoric — peddled by mainstream candidates and media outlets and not just militant fringe groups — done to our society? The New Yorker's George Packer says the particular motivations for Loughner’s rampage aren’t the point.
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BROOKE GLADSTONE: If politicians and pundits have the right to speak how and when they choose, surely those who listen have an equal right to choose the time to ponder what it means.
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BOB GARFIELD: In the absence of any connection between Jared Loughner’s acts and the political speech that swirled around him, the question persists: what has the aggressive rhetoric done to our society? George Packer writes for The New Yorker and he says Loughner’s particular motivations for the shooting rampage aren't really the point.
GEORGE PACKER: The point is that when this shooting took place, the fact that it made people realize how violent the discourse has become and how likely it was that something like this would happen meant that the two were going to be irrevocably associated. And, in fact, to me it’s almost remarkable that there hadn't been a high-profile attack because there’d been many lower profile attacks or near attacks.
BOB GARFIELD: In our history there have always been politically motivated attacks by mainly crackpots. There’s also always been political rhetoric couched in the terms of war and combat. So what makes, for example, Sarah Palin’s crosshairs image of Gabrielle Giffords’ congressional district worse than what we've long been used to?
GEORGE PACKER: I think historically it’s ebbed and flowed. The nineteenth century was a pretty violent century politically. The twentieth century was less so. In the last 10, 15 years it has really heated up. What makes this atmosphere particularly dangerous is that those garden variety military metaphors are used in a context in which the Second Amendment is actually not a right being asserted. It’s a weapon that’s used in a kind of a coy way to issue a threat. If we don't get our way, we're gonna to turn to violence.
BOB GARFIELD: Asserted not by fringe elements but by, for example, Republican nominee for the U.S. Senate Sharron Angle.
SHARRON ANGLE: You know, if this - if this Congress keeps going the way it is, people are really looking toward those Second Amendment remedies; they're saying, my goodness, what can we do to turn this country around?
GEORGE PACKER: The key part of this is where it’s coming from. It’s coming from leaders in the right wing political movement and their media heroes. Let me just say one thing about Sarah Palin and the crosshairs campaign literature. By itself I wouldn't think that that’s a particularly incendiary document. It’s first the context in which it appears, which is continual use of that kind of language of guns, of war. And second, in retrospect, it just seems indecent. This woman was shot. Isn't it regrettable someone once put a crosshairs on her district? Now, these are people who, as Orwell once wrote, are playing with fire without knowing that it’s hot. They don't seem to understand the toxicity of what they've created.
BOB GARFIELD: You talked in your post about static. Tell me, what’s the static to which you refer?
GEORGE PACKER: The incendiary language that is more and more the stuff of talk radio, cable news and in more and more of mainstream news which reports on cable news and talk radio, and it’s, it’s as if now to qualify for the news you have to be willing to say some pretty outrageous things, because otherwise it’s just not good enough to get you on the air. I'm not blaming those individuals for the shooting. In fact, there’s a big gap between them. I'm saying in people’s minds there was a natural association. It’s as if people woke up and realized, I've been hearing really ugly language for several years now, and so it must have had something to do with those shootings. Well, it didn't, as it turned out. It could easily have.
BOB GARFIELD: I wonder if it’s just that we realize that this is what armed tyranny against an oppressive government looks like when it’s written in actual blood.
GEORGE PACKER: The shooting in a supermarket on a quiet Saturday morning in the most ordinary setting possible suddenly showed people this is what they're talking about. This is what a dead or wounded politician surrounded by other dead or, or wounded people is really like. And it’s as if a kind of fantasy or hallucination that had been settling over parts of the country became real, and it was shocking for that reason.
BOB GARFIELD: I want to go to 1995 and Oklahoma City. That was a crime committed by people who may or may not have had full command of their senses but nonetheless knew exactly what they were about. That was an explicitly political act, and yet it seems to me that the conversation we're having now over the Arizona shootings is far more concerned with the political environment than the conversation was then. What’s different?
GEORGE PACKER: I think there was more unity about the horror of that event and what it meant. That event instantly delegitimized whatever appeal the militia movement, the far right fringe might have had for anyone in public life. But this event, because the meaning is less clear here, the room for misunderstanding and false accusation and counteraccusation is greater. And I think the political atmosphere today is worse.
BOB GARFIELD: I wanted to tell you about some of our own deliberations on the show, before we even had this conversation, because there has been no connection established between Jared Loughner’s motives and the political environment in general, because he appears to be a paranoid schizophrenic acting out of his illness, there is a question as to whether it’s fair to even discuss this issue. If there’s no connection, why are we discussing the connection?
GEORGE PACKER: It’s a very difficult balance to strike between not assigning responsibility to anyone who isn't responsible and at the same time stating the obvious. We know that Gabrielle Giffords said on television early last year that she was concerned about the effects of the attacks on her. There was a very close association between her fear and her fate but it wasn't a direct relation. And so, to talk about it one has to make those very fine distinctions. But to me, not to talk about it would be bizarre. For example, if the man who shot Yitzhak Rabin in 1995 were not politically motivated, as he was, but were a paranoid schizophrenic, wouldn't the Israelis also have had to talk about the toxic atmosphere of charges of being a traitor and a heretic? I think we're in if not quite such an extreme situation, a similar situation where the language has reached a point where public figures running for office were essentially saying, we're going to take up guns if we don't get our way. And then a woman is shot who feared being attacked and who had been under verbal attack for a, a whole year, and whose opponent in the race last year used an M-16 as a campaign tool. How can you not talk about that? To me, it would just be bizarre not to.
BOB GARFIELD: All right, George, thank you very, very much.
GEORGE PACKER: Thanks, Bob.
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BOB GARFIELD: George Packer is a writer for The New Yorker.
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