It is hard to believe, given the circumstances, that there is no connection. True. But “hard to believe” is not our business. We report on what is in front of us, and our analysis should stem from that.
Dan Balz, at The Washington Post writes*:
Politicians in both parties have said this is not a time for one side to try to score political points against the other over who bears responsibility for these conditions, though there is plenty of finger-pointing in the blogosphere and on Twitter. The reality is everyone bears some responsibility, from politicians to political operatives to the media to ordinary Americans.
Right now, the conduct of politics and political campaigns too easily slides from lively debate to destructive competition in ways large and small. The Center for Political Participation at Allegheny College, together with Indiana University-Purdue University at Fort Wayne, has been looking at the question of civility in politics. A poll taken just before the November elections found that six in 10 people said politics had become less civil since Obama took office. That was an increase from the 48 percent who said so in April.
That may be one reason the words of Clarence Dupnik, the sheriff of Pima County, Ariz., have resonated so powerfully since Saturday’s shootings. Decrying the tone of much of today’s political debate, he said: “People tend to pooh-pooh this business about all the vitriol we hear inflaming the American public by people who make a living off of doing that. That may be free speech, but it’s not without consequences.”
George Packer, writing at his New Yorker blog Interesting Times drops the conceit that a discussion about rhetoric need be connected to Saturday’s shooting. (Our emphasis.)
This relentlessly hostile rhetoric has become standard issue on the right. (On the left it appears in anonymous comment threads, not congressional speeches and national T.V. programs.) And it has gone almost entirely uncriticized by Republican leaders. Partisan media encourages it, while the mainstream media finds it titillating and airs it, often without comment, so that the gradual effect is to desensitize even people to whom the rhetoric is repellent. We’ve all grown so used to it over the past couple of years that it took the shock of an assassination attempt to show us the ugliness to which our politics has sunk.
The massacre in Tucson is, in a sense, irrelevant to the important point. Whatever drove Jared Lee Loughner, America’s political frequencies are full of violent static.
This jump to a national debate on rhetoric while the target victim still fights for her life in hospital and the killer’s motives remain unclear has led some media critics to push back. Howard Kurtz at the Daily Beast reminded readers that violent political rhetoric is a mainstay of American political debate and Slate’s Jack Shafer yesterday published an eyeball-grabbing, impassioned retort to Sherrif Dupnik’s calls to temper the tone of national political debate.
when it comes to political debates. Such “inflammatory” words as targeting, attacking, destroying, blasting, crushing, burying, knee-capping, and others have similarly guided political thought and action. Not once have the use of these images or words tempted me or anybody else I know to kill. I’ve listened to, read—and even written!—vicious attacks on government without reaching for my gun. I’ve even gotten angry, for goodness’ sake, without coming close to assassinating a politician or a judge.
Our spirited political discourse, complete with name-calling, vilification—and, yes, violent imagery—is a good thing. Better that angry people unload their fury in public than let it fester and turn septic in private. The wicked direction the American debate often takes is not a sign of danger but of freedom. And I’ll punch out the lights of anybody who tries to take it away from me.
Shafer has a point. But in responding so feverishly and in so fully dismissing Dupnik, it feels he too may be rushing to judgment. No connection between the current climate of political rhetoric and Loughner’s actions have yet to surface. And yet they still might. And then, there will be legitimate cause for this debate to resurface as well. Then, the claim that simply because I am not tempted to violence by the siren call of a politician’s rhetorical flourishes may not seem strong enough.
Even if no connection is found, Packer may be right: a serious debate about political language, something beyond a few thoughts shared across a Morning Joe or Meet the Press roundtable, could be in order. But it should not necessarily be tied to the attempted assassination of Congresswoman Giffords. And it should not come before the facts of her case have been fully dug out.