Room For Debate?

No connection to Giffords, but rhetoric debate still to be had

News and analysis continues to swell following the attempted assassination of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords on Saturday. Broadly: Giffords remains in critical condition as the press speculates on the degree of her potential recovery; her alleged shooter, Jared Lee Loughner, appeared in federal court yesterday, facing five federal counts, and accepted prominent capital-defense counsel Judy Clarke as his lawyer; and, while the debate about Loughner’s affiliations, heated political rhetoric, and its connection to Saturday’s events continues, questions about gun control and mental health are beginning to stir more loudly than they did in the immediate aftermath.

Today, the right is coming back at the left for politicizing the Arizona shooting—several pundits, like Michelle Malkin, pointing to the left’s own use of violent political rhetoric over the past decade and crying, ‘Hypocrite!” Her post presents an interesting list of such instances, though most of Malkin’s examples are celebrities or extreme left fringe figures or protesters, not major political figures like those on the right singled out by the press for violent rhetoric in the past few days.

Rush Limbaugh is arguing—with typically little to back it up other than his own superhuman abilities to sniff out a leftist MSM conspiracy theory—that “The list is never ending of incidents like this where the media is damn certain, damn well certain they can give Obama his OKC bombing. They can give a Democrat president some kind of massive murder or disaster caused by conservatives. That remains the number one effort.”

There is a kind of hypocrisy here, too. Limbaugh, Malkin, and the like are clearly politicizing their argument about the politicization of a tragedy, firing back at what they perceive to be the left’s demonization of them and their words, by demonizing their attackers—how dare you pin this on us, you political opportunist! It is, as expected, a dogfight heading nowhere, and will no doubt continue to rush to that end.

More on-point is David Brooks in The New York Times today. While I think it’s folly for Brooks not to at least mention the series of events that tempted journalists to initially link the shooting to recent rhetoric—the office attack, the crosshairs graphic, threats against Giffords and other health care supporters—he makes important points which echo those we made yesterday and Sunday.

These accusations—that political actors contributed to the murder of 6 people, including a 9-year-old girl—are extremely grave. They were made despite the fact that there was, and is, no evidence that Loughner was part of these movements or a consumer of their literature. They were made despite the fact that the link between political rhetoric and actual violence is extremely murky. They were vicious charges made by people who claimed to be criticizing viciousness.

Yet such is the state of things. We have a news media that is psychologically ill informed but politically inflamed, so it naturally leans toward political explanations. We have a news media with a strong distaste for Sarah Palin and the Tea Party movement, and this seemed like a golden opportunity to tarnish them. We have a segmented news media, so there is nobody in most newsrooms to stand apart from the prevailing assumptions. We have a news media market in which the rewards go to anybody who can stroke the audience’s pleasure buttons.

I have no love for Sarah Palin, and I like to think I’m committed to civil discourse. But the political opportunism occasioned by this tragedy has ranged from the completely irrelevant to the shamelessly irresponsible.

That spectrum feels about right—on both sides.

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.

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