Roundup: The Giffords shooting and violent political rhetoric

Although much is still unknown about the motives of the shooter, Jared Lee Loughner, Saturday’s tragic shooting almost immediately sparked debate about the role of violent rhetoric in American politics.

Many conservatives have been quick to dismiss suggestions that the hostile, inflammatory rhetoric of the right played any role in the shooting. (Jack Shafer will literally punch you in the face if you suggest he could tone it down a bit. Nice, dude.) Even bringing it up provokes outrage that liberals would “politicize” the tragedy in such a way. But I’m thinking that as long as it’s fair game to blame pot for the shooting (um, seriously?), a little reflection on the political climate isn’t out of line.

Here are a few smart perspectives…

In a press conference discussing the investigation just hours after the shooting, Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik pinned some blame on the rhetoric of “people in the radio business and some people in the TV business:”

I’d just like to say that when you look at unbalanced people, how they are—how they respond to the vitriol that comes out of certain mouths, about tearing down the government, the anger, the hatred, the bigotry that goes on in this country is getting to be outrageous. And unfortunately, Arizona, I think, has become sort of the capital. We have become the mecca for prejudice and bigotry…People tend to pooh-pooh this business about the vitriol that inflames American public opinion by the people who make a living off of that. That may be free speech but it’s not without consequences.

James Fallows notes that the shootings of political figures are inherently political—even when the motives behind them are murky.

That’s the further political ramification here. We don’t know why the Tucson killer did what he did. If he is like Sirhan, we’ll never “understand.” But we know that it has been a time of extreme, implicitly violent political rhetoric and imagery, including SarahPac’s famous bulls-eye map of 20 Congressional targets to be removed — including Rep. Giffords. It is legitimate to discuss whether there is a connection between that tone and actual outbursts of violence, whatever the motivations of this killer turn out to be. At a minimum, it will be harder for anyone to talk — on rallies, on cable TV, in ads — about “eliminating” opponents, or to bring rifles to political meetings, or to say “don’t retreat, reload.”

Ezra Klein argues that even though the shooter seems to be mentally ill rather than motivated by “calculated political intent,” this kind of violence should give us pause.

But today’s shooting was a reminder of what real political violence in this country could look like, and the awful recognition that it could’ve easily fit with comments made by trusted political figures should stop us cold. We’re lucky to live in a country where political violence is rare. We’re lucky that that doesn’t appear to have changed. But that may be dumb luck that we’re benefiting from. It is hard to look through those statements and believe that we’re doing enough to keep our political system peaceful.

Jill Filipovic points out that the “he’s crazy” explanation of Loughner’s actions both unfairly vilifies people with mental illnesses—who are no more likely to commit violent crimes than anyone else—and is a cop-out that cuts of any deeper exploration of the causes of violence.

Certainly, some people with mental illnesses do commit crimes — but that shouldn’t really surprise us, since people with mental illnesses are people, and some people commit crimes. I’m worried, though, that “he’s crazy” will end up being the easy card to pull in the particular case of the Arizona shooting, without recognizing that, mentally ill or not, Jared Loughner participated in the same society as the rest of us, and was undoubtedly influenced by the culture in which he lived — mental illness does not typically put one on an island all their own, totally unswayed and oblivious to everything around. We need to take a good look at the culture and sub-cultures we’ve built in the United States; “he’s crazy” is a cop-out, and it’s irresponsible, and it doesn’t alleviate us of our responsibilities.

And here’s my take: Of course, Sarah Palin—or Glenn Beck or the Tea Party or right-wing talk radio or any other political leaders—didn’t cause Jared Lee Laugher to get a gun and shoot a Congresswoman and 17 other people on a Saturday morning. The causes of such an act are as complex as the mind of the individual who commits it, and the influencing factors–psychological, political, and societal–damn near impossible to tease apart.

But it’s not about cause. It’s about context. And it’s not actually about Jared Lee Laugher. Frankly, I think it’s pretty irrelevant whether or not he was influenced by violent right-wing rhetoric. It’s possible he wasn’t at all. But the very fact that he could have been is damning evidence that our political climate has gotten out of control.

The incendiary, hateful rhetoric that has become par for the course on the right in recent years is irresponsible whether or not it contributed to a Congresswoman being shot. It was irresponsible when the glass window of Rep. Giffords’ office was shattered after the health care reform vote. It was irresponsible when, as said months ago Giffords, Palin should realize that putting her district in the crosshairs of a gun could have consequences. It was irresponsible when Giffords’ staff had to call the police after a gun was dropped at a previous town hall meeting. It’s been irresponsible, shameful, and beneath the standards to which we should hold our political discourse all along.

And the fact that Palin’s staff spent Saturday scrubbing her website of the target image and now claims—unconvincingly given that Palin herself referred to it as a “bullseye icon” and paired it with the phrase “don’t retreat, RELOAD”—that it was never intended to be gun sights suggests that, deep down, they know it’s irresponsible too.

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4 Comments

  1. Posted January 10, 2011 at 11:37 am | Permalink

    In truth, political discourse has always been irresponsible and ingeniousness. I’m making that judgment based on my study of history and American politics over the years. I think that the vituperative stuff going around isn’t any worse than what existed a century ago, just that it’s amplified now.

    There’s more of it. There’s 24/7 cable news networks, the Internet, and a thousand bully pulpits. In some ways, this is a good thing, but hatred is its own echo chamber. It will take us doing the hard work necessary to go after the roots of it, rather than trying to treat the easiest, most obvious symptoms.

    • Posted January 10, 2011 at 11:37 am | Permalink

      should say disingenuous above.

  2. Posted January 10, 2011 at 4:21 pm | Permalink

    I take issue with the notion that simply because violent right-wing rhetoric *could* have influenced the shooter is damning evidence that political climate is out of control. We don’t even know if the shooter was even aware of Palin’s bullseye map. What we do know is that some of the shooter’s favorite books included The Communist Manifesto, Mein Kampf, The Republic, and We The Living. Now, if it’s not about cause, but about context, then an argument may be made that: the mere fact that reading political philosophy *could* have influenced the shooter is damning evidence of an academic discipline that’s dangerous and out of control.

    I’m partly setting up a straw man to knock down, but my point remains: it’s impetuous at this point to jump to conclusions about what may or may not have influenced the shooter (and attributions of blame) until we obtain more substantive evidence of the shooter’s motivations. The primary reason that people blame right-wing rhetoric is because it makes a convenient narrative – this is just like how much of original reporting on the Columbine shootings focused on scapegoating video games as a self-evident cause. It may have been a contributing factor, sure, but there’s certainly bigger issues at play.

  3. Posted January 10, 2011 at 5:17 pm | Permalink

    Honestly, having gone through all of Loughner’s videos, the things he seems preoccupied with seem to go beyond what is conventionally thought of as the American “right” or “left” wing. He utilized bits and pieces of things that I’ve heard expressed by people on both sides but ultimately seemed a little ideologically confused. I really wish people on both sides would stop trying to presume he’s either one or the other.

    I also wish political pundits would step aside a bit and give some airtime to members of the medical/psychological community. What I’m seeing is a lot of misunderstanding about how schizophrenics/schizo-affectives think, perceive, and how we organize our thoughts sometimes. What most of America is seeing as “right wing” or “left wing” may not have been what he was processing at all at the time he acted or even made those videos. I’d really like to see someone address this to the public, as well as emphasize that the majority of people who live with these conditions do not act out in violent ways.

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