Why Are the Pundits Ignoring the Influence of Violent Right-Wing Rhetoric in Tuscon's Tragedy?

According to the New York Times, one week after the massacre that left six dead and 13 wounded, a gun show at Arizona’s Pima County Fairgrounds went on as planned. The Times reports that “items for sale included ‘gun juice,’ a type of lubricant; 40-round magazines for AK-47s, at $19.99; and bumper stickers critical of President Obama.”

See a connection between these items? Worry that these things would be displayed together so soon after an assassination attempt and bloodbath? Feel uncomfortable about potential links between political rhetoric and violence? Well, you’d better put your blinders on. Because you will be condemned by a brigade of pundits who want us to ignore facts, cast aside our critical faculties, and get on board with their dishonest constructions of the Tucson massacre.

Charles M. Blow began his Saturday New York Times editorial railing against people (specifically, the ‘left’) who had the temerity to suggest that the increasingly hateful rhetoric and violence of right wing ideologues had anything whatever to do with Tuscon. “The dots were too close and the temptation to connect them was too strong,” he hissed, accusing the left of a “political witch hunt” in its “overreaction” and “overreaching” in response to the tragedy. He was not the first. Soon after the shooting, The New Republic’s Jonathan Chait quickly announced that the violence in Tuscson “is largely disconnected from even loosely organized extreme right-wing politics” and then went on in a separate piece to leap to Sarah Palin’s defense. (The damsel, to my knowledge, offered no thanks to her savior). On it went. Speculation!  Conjecture! We must not politicize! A random act! Some commentators, including Blow, actually intimated that the left was glad that the killings had occurred just so they could discuss violent rhetoric in America. Shut up or you’ll be branded a sociopath!

Let me see if I understand this correctly. If I am concerned about the shooting in Tucson and wish to think about how we might best prevent future violence in our democracy, I must ignore a) American political culture, b) right-wing ideology, and c) Sarah Palin. I must totally disregard the following, or I will be accused of ‘taking advantage’ of a tragedy, conducting a witch hunt, and wanton recklessness:

  • That a disturbed young man allegedly went on a killing rampage. That his rage did not manifest in an attack on a neighbor. Or a family member. Or a police officer. It manifested in the attempt to assassinate a member of the United States Congress.
  • That the disturbed young man recorded his ramblings on YouTube prior to the rampage. That his disturbance did not take the form of claims that he was pursued by aliens. Or expressions of a belief that he was Messiah. His ravings concerned the illegitimacy of the U.S. government and its currency.
  • That obsessions with the legitimacy of the U.S. government and its currency are not associated at this moment in history with liberals. Or centrists. Or members of the Flat Earth Society. They are the pet concerns of right wing ideologues.
  • That the target of the assassination attempt, Congresswoman Giffords, had been the object of threats, violent rhetoric and the witness to alarming incidents in public venues, including the sight of a gun dropping out of the clothing of a man holding an anti-government placard at a recent gathering. That she publicly expressed her fear of the escalation by naming a public figure, whose use of violent imagery was directed at her. The person named was not Howard Dean. Or Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Or President Obama. The person named was Sarah Palin.
  • That Sarah Palin, the person Giffords publicly named as a spreader of dangerous rhetoric, is a political figure. That she is not associated with progressives. Or centrists. Or moderate Republicans. She is associated with the Tea Party.
  • That over the last two years, the Tea Party has been associated with the expression of dissatisfaction towards the current state of the nation. That this dissatisfaction has not expressed itself in demands for a renewal of the brotherhood of mankind. Or a focus on peaceful protest. It has been expressed in slogans like “Don’t retreat, RELOAD” (Sarah Palin); a call for “Second Amendment remedies” (Nevada Tea Party Senate candidate); and “I want people in Minnesota armed and dangerous” (Congresswoman and Tea Partier Michelle Bachman).
  • That the very forces in our society that might have prevented the massacre — namely strong gun laws and adequate services for the mentally ill — are precisely the forces that a certain section of the American political spectrum seeks to undermine. That this section is not the far left. Or the U.S. Pacifist Party. Or the Green Party. The people who most loudly advocate weak gun laws and austerity measures that cut off health care are typically right wing conservatives.
  • That the person who has had the task of maintaining law and order in Tucson, Sheriff Clarence Dupnik, expressed his deep concern about the community just after the shooting. That the thing most troubling to him was not the real estate crisis in Tucson. Or unemployment. Or the need for looser gun laws. He specifically named violent political rhetoric as the thing that kept him up at night.

In short, Blow & Co. call on us to ignore salient information, dismiss the reality of people who actually live in Tuscon, like Sheriff Dupnik, and succumb to the intimidation of the very ring wing ideologues whose irresponsible and violent rhetoric and gestures are poisoning our political climate. And they also call on us to forget our duty to Congresswoman Giffords and the other victims of the shooting to think long and hard about the violent political climate in America and what we can do to make our country a safe place for everyone.

Do I think that Sarah Palin had some influence on Jared Loughner? I have no idea. But I believe what Congresswoman Giffords, now fighting for her life, said when she spoke out following the vandalism of her Tucson office. She specifically said that Sarah Palin’s violent rhetoric was creating a dangerous climate for elected officials. When asked if the ramped up rhetoric was making her afraid, here is what she said to MSNBC:

“I think it’s important for all leaders, not just leaders of the Republican Party or the Democratic Party … community leaders, figures in our community to say, ‘Look, we can’t stand for this.’ I mean, this is a situation where people really need to realize that this rhetoric, and firing people up, and even things … For example, we’re on Sarah Palin’s targeted list, but the way she has it depicted has the crosshairs of a gunsight over our district. And when people do that, they’ve gotta realize that there’s consequences to that action….In the years that some of my colleagues have served, twenty, thirty years, they’ve never seen it like this.”

To dismiss the connection made by Giffords herself dishonors the reality of the victim of a murderous attack.

This is not the first time in history that irresponsible people like Sarah Palin have filled the public square with violent rhetoric. Nor is it the first time that the writers of newspaper articles have failed to condemn violent language, which then turned into violent gestures, which then, in some cases, transformed into wholesale slaughter. As we remember and celebrate the life of Martin Luther King, America’s great teacher of how to change our society without resorting to violence, let us remember unless we condemn ruthlessness and violence, we will become the victims of it. All of us.


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