Giffords Analysis Machine In Overdrive

The rhetoric narrative swells

Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords remains in critical condition. Her alleged shooter, Jared Lee Loughner, is not cooperating with police. The motives for Saturday’s attempted assassination are still murky at best; at worst, potentially unfathomable. And yet the analysis machine is in overdrive.

At heart, rhetoric was to blame, say most—though even they concede there’s yet no connection between Loughner and any mainstream political movement or its brand of political speech. But with the narrative having been settled by nightfall Saturday—we are going to have a national debate on the nature of our political discussion in this country—there has been a messy scramble among the partisan press to stake out a position and lay and deflect blame; to position themselves on the proper side of the discourse. Look at Sarah Palin’s crosshair graphic, cried the left. What about the Daily Kos’s “Giffords is ‘Dead to Me’” story, cried the right. And that one-liner in the Times about Loughner being liberal? A particularly egregious column appeared in Sunday’s New York Daily News, where Michael Daly argued, without mentioning Loughner’s name or his ambiguous political beliefs, that Palin had Giffords’ blood on her hands. [Update: Daly contacted me and pointed out that while his column’s headline read, “Rep. Gabrielle Giffords’ blood is on Sarah Palin’s hands…,” the column itself said she “may.”]

As we reported yesterday, this is all a bit like trying to drive a half-built car. The facts are still being dug up, and few have settled. Any argument driven on such faint fumes is sure to crash, or at least swerve, as we learn more. Most of the mounting profiles of Loughner, in which reporters are playing psychologist and former classmates are taking the lead, suggest little beside a disturbed young man who “creeped” out classmates and spat out incoherent, inconsistent quasi-political sound bites every once in a while. Mark Potok’s analysis at the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Hatewatch site is strong—he cites conspiracy theorist David Wynn Miller as a likely source of some of the ideas expressed in Loughner’s more incomprehensible YouTube videos—but even he can only “think” that rhetoric and ideology outside of the mainstream “probably” had some influence on Loughner, who was mentally unstable.

The point is that we don’t know enough.

Still, there is an almost infuriating insistence among the political press and others to analyze this story through the prism of political rhetoric, long before the facts have been born out fully enough to render that the appropriate approach. It may well be—and an approach worth taking regardless of Loughner’s motivations—but as we wrote yesterday, we need to take time to learn what happened before discerning what it means.

USA Today’s Susan Page and Fredreka Schouten have a report today titled, “Gabrielle Giffords shooting fuels debate over rhetoric,” in which they diligently run through the settled-upon issues: the Palin crossairs, the “climate,” the historical similarities with Okalahoma City and 9/11, the idea of Arizona as a kind of microcosm for the most heated national political debates. The Times ran a similar piece yesterday, titled “Bloodshed Puts New Focus on Vitriol in Politics.” Over the pond, the Telegraph runs a story headlined, “Gabrielle Giffords shooting: inflammatory rhetoric draws real blood.”

Thought-leaders across the media spectrum—those above the partisan fray, those who steer our conversation—have been heavily promoting this particular narrative line. In a Times analysis published yesterday, Matt Bai examined the kind of rhetoric many are pinning as connected, somehow, to Saturday’s shooting.

In fact, much of the message among Republicans last year, as they sought to exploit the Tea Party phenomenon, centered — like the Tea Party moniker itself — on this imagery of armed revolution. Popular spokespeople like Ms. Palin routinely drop words like “tyranny” and “socialism” when describing the president and his allies, as if blind to the idea that Americans legitimately faced with either enemy would almost certainly take up arms.

…Mr. Steele didn’t mean this the way it sounded [a comment on putting Nancy Pelosi in the “firing line”], of course; he was talking about “firing” in the pink slip sense of the word. But his carelessly constructed, made-for-television rhetoric reinforced the dominant imagery of the moment — a portrayal of 21st-century Washington as being like 18th-century Lexington and Concord, an occupied country on the verge of armed rebellion.

And yet Bai preceded this discussion by essentially acknowledging the lack of a proven connection between such rhetoric and the weekend’s attempted assassination.

It wasn’t clear Saturday whether the alleged shooter in Tucson was motivated by any real political philosophy or by voices in his head, or perhaps by both. But it’s hard not to think he was at least partly influenced by a debate that often seems to conflate philosophical disagreement with some kind of political Armageddon.

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.

Update: It’s hard to keep track of the unfolding story of Congresswoman Giffords and her accused shooter, Jared Lee Loughner. There is just so much being thrown out there. So much good work. So much spec. Perhaps the biggest scoop on the Loughner front today goes to Mother Jones’s Nick Baumann, who nabbed an “exclusive” interview with Loughner’s close friend since middle school, Bryce Tierney. The lede, as many have been in this unfolding story, is chilling.

At 2:00 a.m. on Saturday—about eight hours before he allegedly killed six people and wounded 14, including Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.), in Tucson—Jared Lee Loughner phoned an old and close friend with whom he had gone to high school and college. The friend, Bryce Tierney, was up late watching TV, but he didn’t answer the call. When he later checked his voice mail, he heard a simple message from Loughner: “Hey man, it’s Jared. Me and you had good times. Peace out. Later.”
Tierney’s revelations are pretty fascinating. Adding to a confusing pile of background info on where Loughner might stand politically, ideologically, and even mentally, Tierney says that the twenty-two-year-old believed in “lucid dreaming,” the idea he could control his dreams, that he had recently given up pot and made strides towards a healthier lifestyle, and then speculates that his friend wanted to “promote chaos,” and that he “wanted the media to freak out about this whole thing.”

On Congresswoman Giffords, Mother Jones reports:

Loughner would occasionally mention Giffords, according to Tierney: “It wasn’t a day-in, day-out thing, but maybe once in a while, if Giffords did something that was ridiculous or passed some stupid law or did something stupid, he related that to people. But the thing I remember most is just that question. I don’t remember him stalking her or anything.” Tierney notes that Loughner did not display any specific political or ideological bent: “It wasn’t like he was in a certain party or went to rallies…It’s not like he’d go on political rants.” But Loughner did, according to Tierney, believe that government is “fucking us over.” He never heard Loughner vent about about the perils of “currency,” as Loughner did on one YouTube video he created.

Of all the “friend/classmate says” reports we’re seeing, this is perhaps the most illuminating to date. Tierney seems to have known Loughner long enough and intimately enough to offer genuine insights.

And yet those insights still don’t offer anything close to a clear picture of who Loughner is or what he believes politically. If anything, the piece adds to the confusion and seems to confirm, at least for now, that his beliefs were far outside the mainstream and near impossible to place on any simplistic political spectrum. Which may well be the case when all is settled. What is clear in this piece is that, as many earlier reports have noted, Loughner is probably deeply mentally disturbed.

It’s important to note too that while Tierney seems a trustworthy source and his views as a close friend are valuable, he can only represent part of the story. There may be aspects to Loughner politically which he never revealed to Tierney—he may have been a Tea Party member, he may have bee a communist—and Tierney’s claims are difficult to verify. The bottom line: we’re still waiting for more. All for now seems a kind of speculation.

*Correction: Post initially incorrectly identified Balz a working for The Washington Times.

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Joel Meares is a former CJR assistant editor. Tags: , , ,