Cool It Down: Vitriol and the Arizona Shooting

Two years ago, a friend of mine suggested that I would be smart to refrain from discussing politics on this blog. Indeed, since then I have stuck to sharing my published articles on music, literature, visual art and sports. But the disturbing atrocity in Arizona this past weekend made me think again.

As the father of a 13-month-old girl, what really struck my core in the wake of the Safeway shooting on Saturday was the fact that a nine-year-old American girl—a member of the student council in her elementary school and the only female player on her Little League team—showed an interest in meeting her local congresswoman in order to “see how Democracy works” and then was literally shot and killed by doing so. From now on, if an American child asks is or her parents whether they can meet their Washington representative at a local event, the parents will no doubt think of the little girl who was gunned down on Saturday.

Stricter gun laws could have prevented this, as the gunman was known to be mentally ill before the FBI decided he was fit to own a semi-automatic weapon. There is a reason that previous assassination attempts in the United States—from the assassinations of Lincoln, JFK and RFK to the failed attempt to shoot Ronald Reagan—ended with one casualty or less: a semi-automatic weapon was not involved.

The type of firearm 22-year-old Jared Lee Loughner used in his attempt to kill Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords on Saturday is a weapon unfit for hunting and unfit for mere self-defense. A Glock 9, in truth, is useful only if one wants to shoot a lot of people in a very short amount of time, and unfortunately that’s what Loughner was able to do. I see no reason why anyone should be allowed to carry such a weapon into a grocery store or other public establishment. More importantly, however, I see no reason why any sane person would be interested in owning such a weapon in the first place. Still, even Rep. Giffords also owns a Glock, and that is her constitutional right.

Loughner shot 19 people and killed six, perhaps seven if Giffords’ critical condition worsens. Even in the face of such despicable recent comments as Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele’s suggestion that his constituents place former Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi in “the firing line,” it is not yet clear whether a conscious toning-down of expressly violent political rhetoric in the face of such despicable comments could have prevented Saturday’s shooting. Just as we may never know if the ridiculous map Sarah Palin distributed last year, which placed crosshairs over the regions where Democratic officials were up for re-election (including Giffords’), helped incite Loughner to act on his desire to kill his congresswoman, we may also never know if it didn’t.

But that’s not the point. There’s no use in waiting to decide whether a new, more considerate approach to campaigning would prevent future attacks on government officials—instead, both Steele and his counterpart in the Democratic Party should denounce violence-laden campaign language immediately on the basis that it is unnecessary, unethical and un-American, period.

Right-wing outlets such as Fox News, along with the Republican officials they unconditionally support, were quick to condemn those who say that the kind of violent political rhetoric spewed 24 hours a day on American television and radio stations had absolutely nothing to do with Loughner’s attempted assassination of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. Additionally, so-called “conservative” commentators on American TV and radio have repeatedly engaged in distracting tattle-tale-ism (“Democrats say cruel things, too,” a former Republican congressman said on NPR) and outright silliness (“In the early 1800s, rhetoric was much more violent,” a Republican aide said on CSPAN).

First of all, precedent is not justification. And during heated presidential races in the 18th century, political fanatics did not have access to semi-automatic weapons. Nor did they have the 24-hour news cycle or elevated hate-mongers such Bill O’Reilly—who calls people who don’t agree with him “loonies” and yells at them to “shut up!”—and Glenn Beck—who regularly compares President Barack Obama, a Democrat whose minimally progressive policies virtually mirror those supported by the Republican party before Christian extremists hijacked it in the early 1980s, with Adolf Hitler, a book-burning ethnic cleanser WWII-era Americans were right to fear, loathe and take up arms against. After the health care bill was passed early last year, Beck told his massive conservative audience, “The war is just beginning.” No thanks, Mr. Beck—we’re already entrenched in two real wars, although one almost never hears the words “Iraq” or “Afghanistan” used by the American media anymore.

Second, Democratic legislators and left-leaning talking heads do use inflamed rhetoric when speaking out against Republican officials and policies. They repeatedly called George W. Bush a liar, a thief, an idiot and a war criminal, for instance. While the United Nations confirmed that the Bush administration’s unilateral invasion of Iraq represented an illegal war, a better use of the Democratic Party’s time would’ve been to use the United Nation’s judgment on Iraq as evidence in a war crimes case against the previous administration, rather than hurling petty insults on talk shows. However, I challenge right-wingers to find an instance in which a Democratic official urged his or her constituents to be “armed and dangerous,” as Republican star Rep. Michele Bachman said last year.

Likewise, I challenge readers to list a moment when a Democratic leader publicly referred to Republicans as “domestic enemies,” as popular Senatorial candidate Sharron Angle said of some liberal members of Congress a few months ago. Timothy Egan of the New York Times called “domestic enemies” code for “treasonous agents, deserving of death,” and that’s not far from what Angle meant—she also ruminated on whether disgruntled right-wingers should use “Second Amendment remedies” to help win elections. Even if she meant it in jest, when you put yourself in the mind of a feverishly overzealous and/or deranged political mind, it’s easy to translate Angle’s comment as, “To help us win, find out where Democratic officials are making public appearances and then go shoot them.”

I can’t imagine the outcry from Republicans if a Democratic official had distributed a map with crosshairs over the district presided over by a Republican congresswoman and just a few months later the congresswoman was shot in the head. And I hope we never find out.

Alas, at the end of the day, six people in Arizona were killed at a Safeway on Saturday morning because a terribly ill young man focused his warped anger on a congresswoman whose views differed from his own. That same day, Tucson Sheriff Clarence Dupnik told an audience of millions that “the anger, the hatred and the bigotry that goes on in this country…the violent rhetoric we hear from people in the radio business and some people in the TV business” was partly to blame and definitely needs to stop. Whether specific irresponsibly pomposity, such as Palin’s vitriolic “crosshairs” map, helped drive Jarred Lee Loughner to shoot his congresswoman may never be known—but there certainly isn’t anything positive that can come from gun metaphors and rampant incitements of hatred and bigotry.

People whose views differ from ours are still people, and using violent rhetoric in talking about them or to them is wrong in every case. John M. Roll, the federal judge who was killed alongside five other Arizonans on Saturday, required security recently, after receiving a pile of death threats following a talk-radio station’s hate-filled rant against his decision to allow the state’s harsh immigration law to be questioned in court. Such vitriol, and its consequences—which Rep. Giffords herself warned of last fall—does not have to continue in America. Let’s recognize the tragedy in Arizona not as a time to choose sides or win political points but as a chance to temper future disagreements—in print, online, on television, on the radio, in the halls of Congress and even simply between friends—with honesty, compassion and understanding.

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