Aren’t we all responsible for the shooting of Gabrielle Giffords? Parents worry about the effect on children of violent movies and bloody video games. But what about violence in our public discourse?
On both sides of the aisle, civility has become the latchkey kid of politics.
“If they bring a knife to the fight, we bring a gun,” then candidate Barack Obama said in Philadelphia on June 13, 2008.
“You lie!” yelled Rep. Joe Wilson, a South Carolina Republican at President Obama during an address of a joint session of Congress in September 2009.
“Commonsense Conservative & lovers of America: “Don’t Retreat, Instead – RELOAD!” Sarah Palin tweeted on March 23, 2010.
Images of Nancy Pelosi burning in hell for the Republican National Committee’s Fire Pelosi campaign, death threats against Rep. Bart Stupak, a key swing Democratic vote, after the passage of health care reform, talk “second amendment remedies” — our political oratory is on steroids. Giffords herself was targeted by both the left and the right: Sarah Palin put her under crosshairs as one of the seats she was targeting for the midterms and one blogger on the progressive Daily Kos blog declared Giffords “dead to me” for her vote against Nancy Pelosi for Speaker last week.* And people wonder why someone might actually go and shoot her. For the last two years, congressional aides and members themselves have privately and publicly voiced concerns about safety. Some members even resorted to doing virtual town hall meetings to minimize the danger.
There is no question that Washington – indeed the country – has become more heatedly partisan. Politicians are being primaried on both sides. As Michael Scherer and I wrote a year ago, some of the most successful fundraisers in the last Congress – Michele Bachmann, a Minnesota Republican, and Alan Grayson, a Florida Democrat who lost his seat in November – perfected the art of throwing ideological bombs on cable tv and then running to the internet to rake in the dough from all the true believers they just riled up. And in this era of the 24/7 news cycle, such behavior is rewarded, not condemned.
During the 2009 summer of discontent, the cameras focused on a few dramatic incidents: a Democratic freshman, Frank Kratovil of Maryland, who was burned in effigy; screaming matches; a rally where a guy wearing a t-shirt referencing Thomas Jefferson’s famous quote about needing to water “the tree of liberty with the blood of tyrants” had a semi-automatic strapped to his leg. But very little coverage was done of the hundreds of relatively peaceful town hall meetings. The more bombastic the rhetoric, the more the media – particularly the cable nets, as Joe Klein notes in a recent column – rewards them. In fact, the cable nets see politicians’ violent innuendos and imagery and raise them to outright threats.
“At some point somebody’s going to jam a CO2 pellet into his head and he’s going to explode like a giant blimp,” MSNBC’s Chris Matthews said of Rush Limbaugh on October 13, 2009.
As a radio host for Clear Channel Glenn Beck said in 2005 he was “thinking about killing [filmmaker] Michael Moore” and pondered whether “I could kill him myself, or if I would need to hire somebody to do it,” before concluding: “No, I think I could. I think he could be looking me in the eye, you know, and I could just be choking the life out — is this wrong?”
And Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly repeated “Tiller the Killer” about Kansas physician George Tiller so often, alleging he performed illegal late-term abortions, that someone did finally walk up and kill Tiller in May of 2009.
What is the effect on this vitriol on the public? For most people, it’s negligible. But take someone mentally ill living in a state that has seen some of the most intensely bitter debates – and one of only three states where just about anyone can legally carry a concealed weapon – and you get a recipe for tragedy. “When you look at unbalanced people, how they respond to the vitriol that comes out of certain mouths about tearing down the government,” Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik said Saturday. “The anger, the hatred, the bigotry that goes on in this country is getting to be outrageous,” said the sheriff. “And unfortunately, Arizona I think has become sort of the capital. We have become the mecca for prejudice and bigotry.”
Here are the facts: a lunatic walked up to a peaceful meeting and shot and killed six people and wounded 12 more, including Rep. Giffords. In the fall out the left is trying to blame the right, the right the left. The truth is: everyone’s appalled and they just want the other side to be responsible. The fault lies with Jared Lee Laughner and perhaps his doctor, if he was seeing one. But it also lies with anyone, including myself, who has helped perpetuate this discourse. I have written “took aim at,” “targeted,” “in the crosshairs of,” more times than I can count – most of the time quite unthinkingly.
So, what should the outcome of all this be? Congress is postponing all action for a week as they determine what steps might be taken to better ensure the safety of their members. (Republicans may want to rethink the title of their first piece of legislation “Repealing the Job-Killing Health Care Law Act”.) But a conversation about tone and language is also in order. “It’s a wake-up call that should allow us to restore political civility,” Donna Brazile told me today. “If we can achieve that outcome maybe we can find some good out of this terrible tragedy.” Sure, everyone mocks political correctness – but that era existed for a reason. It came out of a time when rhetoric gave birth to assassination. There’s certainly less harm is being overly sensitive than overly violent.
*Updated Correction: I originally wrote that Markos Moulitsas of Daily Kos put her under crosshairs. In fact it was a contributor under the name BoyBlue who declared Giffords “dead to me” for her vote against Nancy Pelosi for Speaker last week.