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.

St. Paul, MN

Maya Dusenbery is executive director in charge of editorial at Feministing. She is the author of the forthcoming book Doing Harm: The Truth About How Bad Medicine and Lazy Science Leave Women Dismissed, Misdiagnosed, and Sick (HarperOne, March 2018). She has been a fellow at Mother Jones magazine and a columnist at Pacific Standard magazine. Her work has appeared in publications like,, Bitch Magazine, as well as the anthology The Feminist Utopia Project. Before become a full-time journalist, she worked at the National Institute for Reproductive Health. A Minnesota native, she received her B.A. from Carleton College in 2008. After living in Brooklyn, Oakland, and Atlanta, she is currently based in the Twin Cities.

Maya Dusenbery is an executive director of Feministing and author of the forthcoming book Doing Harm on sexism in medicine.

Read more about Maya

Join the Conversation