Jon Stewart, increasingly a go-to voice on matters of national confusion, opened his show last night with a discussion of Saturday’s shooting. Stewart echoed much of what others and we wrote yesterday and Monday—the connection between political rhetoric and the shooting is simply not there to be seen at this point—but nonetheless argued that that lack of connection is no reason to shy away from a debate on the tenor of the national political discourse. “It would be really nice if the ramblings of crazy people didn’t in any way resemble how we actually resemble how we talk to each other on TV,” Stewart said. “Let’s at least make troubled individuals easier to spot.”
Stewart makes a good point: a lack of a connection is no reason not to debate the tone of our rhetoric. But in practice the debate will be tricky. The struggle for journalists and pundits will be to discuss rhetoric while treading carefully around the issue of the connection between that rhetoric and the congresswoman’s shooting—the fact that the shooting has created an opportunity for a debate on rhetoric could easily imply that unproven connection to readers, listeners, and viewers.
The answer might be to deal with it as directly as Stewart does, to be vigilant in acknowledging the lack of a connection before arguing one isn’t needed for the debate to begin and develop. To treat the relationship between Saturday’s bloodshed and the violent rhetoric we have since discussed as an atmospheric one and not one of cause and effect. And to have the debate in some historical context—our current impassioned debate is nothing new; violent political rhetoric is as old political violence. It is the tools of with which we communicate it and the reach of that rhetoric that has changed.