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Last March, following passage of the Patient Protection and Affordable Health Care Act, a rock was thrown through the window of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords’ (D-AZ) office in Tuscon, Arizona. The gas line was cut at the home of Rep. Tom Perriello’s (D-Va.) brother after members of the Tea Party posted the address of Bo Perriello online, mistakenly believing the home belonged to the congressman himself. Rep. Emmanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.) was spat at during a public meeting on health reform; other lawmakers were targeted by racial and homophobic slurs. And Sarah Palin tweeted the following about the passage of the healthcare reform bill into law:
Commonsense Conservatives & lovers of America: “Don’t Retreat, Instead – RELOAD!” Pls see my Facebook page.
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Several people carried guns at rallies outside an event where President Obama was speaking last year.
Palin’s Political Action Committee also “targeted” with gun sights the names and districts of 20 members of Congress she wanted to see defeated in the November 2010 election. (The “cross-hairs map” has now been removed from the SarahPAC website, but can be seen at the link above). Giffords was one among those in Palin’s cross-hairs. These events preceded by a few months the call by a Florida Tea Party leader for the use of “bullets” if ballots were not sufficient to achieve Tea Party goals in the November election (video below), the suggestion by Nevada Senate Candidate Sharron Angle that losses at the ballot box could trigger “second amendment remedies,” the stomping by a Rand Paul supporter on the head of a peaceful protestor, and the appearance at public events featuring President Obama of people carrying guns, including automatic assault rifles. (I have included full-length videos here instead of quote-clips, so the full context of each is clear).
These tactics are no different from–indeed they are taken straight from the playbook of–the violent anti-choice movement in this country, which has long seen it as acceptable to “target” physicians, clinic workers, patients and lawmakers who support the right of a woman to choose whether or not to carry a pregnancy to term.
In a tragically prescient interview last March on MSNBC’s The Daily Rundown, Giffords, addressing the violent rhetoric used leading up to and following the passage of health reform and particularly the use by Palin’s campaign of cross-hairs on congressional deistrict, said:
“…when people do that, they have to realize there are consequences to that action.”
Today, the consequences are very clear. Six people are dead, including a federal judge and a nine-year-old girl whose early interest in politics prompted a relative to bring her to meet Congresswoman Giffords at a “Congress on Your Corner” event at a local grocery store. Fourteen others were injured. And Congresswoman Giffords, shot in the head at close range, is quite literally fighting for her life in the intensive care unit of a hospital. Members of Congress are now openly discussing the regularity of threats against them over the past two years.
The most immediate question is: Can we change the environment in which such violence occurs? The answer will depend on whether those most responsible for this climate in will take or deflect responsibility for their role.
Clearly, the person immediately responsible for the deaths and injuries is Jared Lee Loughner, the 22-year-old who took a gun to Giffords’ constituent meet-and-greet in what is now clear was a premeditated act to kill Giffords. Indications are that Loughner, who is now in custody, is a mentally unstable young man who had at some point decided to assassinate Giffords, though full details of his history and his own thinking are yet to be evaluated. Amanda has an excellent piece today examining the links between mental illness and lack of health care in the United States, and how little mental health care and help might be available to someone like Loughner were he to seek it.
But we all know the problem is much deeper than one person. In fact, to some degree Loughner’s mental health status is irrelevant because his actions did not occur in a vacuum. He is a perhaps deranged or schizophrenic individual who acted on his own but he is also a perhaps deranged individual whose actions were in fact suggested by a pathologically violent political discourse that actively uses and suggests the use of violence and weaponry as personal “remedies” to political dissatisfaction. It is the pathological nature of our current political system and the pathological lack of accountability by the media to objective fact and serious critical reporting that is the ulimate “national mental illness” behind this event, and that leads to the consequences about which Congresswoman Giffords warned.
Pima County Sherriff Clarence Dupnik, the person who perhaps most directly and eloquently described the situation, said:
“When you look at unbalanced people, how they respond to the vitriol that comes out of certain mouths about tearing down the government. The anger, the hatred, the bigotry that goes on in this country is getting to be outrageous,” said the sheriff. “And unfortunately, Arizona I think has become sort of the capital. We have become the mecca for prejudice and bigotry.”
Arizona…the state in which, for example, politicians from Senator John McCain to Governor Jan Brewer blamed illegal immigrants for everything from declining economic fortunes to violence at the border, claims based on little to no evidence but used for political gain and repeated as fact in the media.
Huffington Post reports that when asked by a reporter if Giffords being shot could have been motivated by “prejudice and bigotry,” Dupnik responded:
“All I can tell you is that there’s reason to believe that this individual may have a mental issue. And I think that people who are unbalanced are especially susceptible to vitriol.”
Congressman Raul Grijalva agreed:
“The climate has gotten so toxic in our political discourse, setting up for this kind of reaction for too long. It’s unfortunate to say that. I hate to say that,” Grijalva said in an interview with The Huffington Post. “If you’re an opponent, you’re a deadly enemy,” Grijalva said of the mindset among Arizona extremists. “Anybody who contributed to feeding this monster had better step back and realize they’re threatening our form of government.”
Yet the parties most responsible for the perpetuation of violent political rhetoric seem the least able–or willing–to make the connection between their own or their party’s statements and actions and the violence that took place, or to take any responsibility or show any contrition for the role that they played. Instead, they are adopting the “lone gunman” approach of the anti-choice movement to de-link their own rhetoric or fear-mongering from the actions of individuals in this country.
Almost immediately, for example, Palin’s camp not only took down the “gun sights” page but claimed–to widespread disbelief–that they were never intended as “targets or gun sights” but rather as surveyors sights. This after an election campaign season in which Palin used the terms “target,” “reload,” and “bullseye” among other gun-related imagery throughout her campaign.
The “message” of both the Republican party and the Tea Party spokespeople appearing on talk shows throughout the weekend was to cast the shootings as a random act of a “lone shooter,” the “violence of a deranged individual,” a messaging point that was transmitted as quickly as the words “job-killing health care bill.”
This was a theme even among those politicians clearly personally affected by the shootings. On MSNBC’s Meet the Press, for example, Congressman Trent Franks (R-AZ), who clearly was deeply personally affected by the shooting of Giffords and who despite their political differences spoke highly of her, calling her a “precious, delightful person,” nonetheless sought to deflect attention from the political debate or the responsibility of his own party in contributing to that to instead say:
[W]hen you try to, to, to go into an area of threatening debate and things of that nature, then it’s very dangerous. But I want to be very careful here. We don’t want to give this Loughner too much credit here… to make it somehow politically analyzed that somehow he was some person making a grand political statement. This guy was a deranged lunatic that had no respect for his fellow human beings and completely rejected any kind of constitutional foundation of this nation.
Likewise, Utah Congressman Raul Labrador (Tea Party/Republican) said:
We have to be careful not to blame one side or the other because both sides are guilty of this. You have extremes on both sides. You have crazy people on both sides. So it’s, it’s not something that either party is guilty by themselves or either party is innocent of. And we have to make sure that we, we take care of it.
There was not one serious reflection throughout the entire program by any Tea Party or Republican commenter that, for example, any of the baseless fear-mongering that was perpetuated about immigrants and border violence in Arizona, health reform and death panels, tyranny, and socialism, or the language and rhetoric of guns, violence, and “second amendment remedies” could have played any role in feeding the delusions of a person like Loughner. Not one Tea Party spokesperson has come forward to say: “We can not speak about “bullets over ballots” without encouraging a climate of indiscriminate violence. This has got to stop.”
In contrast, Congressional Black Caucus Chairman Representative Emanuel Cleaver (D-MO) called the shootings “a wake-up call,” and said:
We are in a dark place in this country right now, and the atmospheric condition is toxic. And much of it originates here in Washington, D.C., and we export it around the country to the point that people come to Washington, they come to the gallery, and they feel comfortable in shouting out insults from the gallery. We had someone removed last week shouting out some insult about President Obama’s birth. I think members of Congress either need to turn down the volume, begin to try to exercise some high level of civility, or this darkness will never ever be overcome with light. The, the hostility is here. People may want to deny it. It is real, and if we, and if we don’t stop it soon, I think this nation is going to be bitterly divided to a point where I fear for the, the future of our children.
Three things are needed for this to stop:
First, the leadership of political parties must reject, immediately and forcefully, any references to violence in political campaigns–ads, speeches, rallies, fundraising outreach. Leaders must reject the use of lies and of character assassination. You can have a strenuous, vigorous political debate based on facts and philosophy. You can attack an opponents positions and the outcomes of their policies. You can draw clear lines between yourself and your party based on issues; you can point out the facts about the implications of one set of policies over another. In fact, you should. It’s critical. But you can not call for, condone, or ignore the calls by others for violence. You can not indiscriminately blame or target a group of people for something for which there is no evidence. And you can not use fearmongering and foster discrimination against one set of people for your own political gain. If a politician can’t muster a campaign based on facts and poiltical philosophy, and if they can’t win an election without violent or fearmongering rhetoric, then I don’t care who they are, they don’t deserve to be (re)elected.
Second, the same leadership has to stop coyly reinforcing the rumors, innuendo, and outright lies spread by a 24-7-364 environment of hate speech and fearmongering spread by right-wing radio and television announcers. Last week, for example, House Speaker John Boehner was asked by NBC Nightly News’ Brian Williams’ whether he believes birther claims that President Obama is not a citizen. His answer?
“The state of Hawaii has said that President Obama was born there. That’s good enough for me,” Boehner first responded.
But pressed by Williams on what he would say to members of his party who have expressed doubts about Obama’s citizenry, Boehner replied:
“Brian, when you come to the Congress of the United States, there are 435 of us. We’re nothing more than a slice of America. People come, regardless of party labels, they come with all kinds of beliefs and ideas. It’s the melting pot of America. It’s not up to me to tell them what to think.”
Mr. Boehner, come on. This insincere dissembling fosters a culture of suspicion and opinion over fact and evidence and contributes to the climate in which violence flourishes. Moreover, it is outright ridiculous. Imagine if in another instance Williams had asked Boehner whether, in light of claims to the contrary, Ohio is a part of the United States of America, and Boehner had said, “Well I think so, but people come up with all sorts of ideas and I can’t tell members of my party who believe Ohio is not a state that they are wrong.” Think he’d be re-elected?
Finally, the media has to do its job to hold politicians accountable for facts and evidence in the claims they make, stop trying to see two sides in every “Emperor with new clothes” debate, and start holding political rhetoric to some objective standard. Is the health reform bill a “job-killer?” Where’s the evidence? Specifically. Are illegal immigrants responsible for violence at the border? Mr. McCain, evidence please? Is there even an increase in violence at the border? Where is the evidence? Specifically. Why even given an interview to a birther if there is no evidence whatsoever that their claims have merit? For ratings? If your ratings are more important than the truth, you are partly responsible for the climate in this country.
Last March, I might have just rolled my eyes in frustration listening to Chuck Todd disingeuously ask Congresswoman Giffords if Democrats were overreacting to the rhetoric and violence displayed of the Tea Party, Palin and others in the aftermath of passage of the health reform bill and in the lead up to the election (see video above). Now, I feel a sense of visceral disgust. If I raised my children in the same environment of equivocation and lack of clear lines drawn between what is civil and what is not, what is fact and what is not, who is responsible and who is not to which the media claims to adhere, no one would be surprised if they became self-absorbed, do-what-I-may monsters. (They are not, but that is a different post).
Congressman Cleaver called for immediate action on the part of everyone to change the climate in which we currently find ourselves.
I think that as soon as we can we need to come back to deal with the business of the, of the people. But we, we ought to come back with a different attitude. Congressman Frank mentioned earlier that, that we don’t know why this happened. And I think–and I agree with it. It doesn’t matter, however. This ought to be a wake-up call to, not only the members of Congress, but the people in this country, that we’re headed in the wrong direction. Congress meets a lot, but it rarely comes together. We are coming from, from two different points of view–which is a democracy and we ought to do that–but we, we come for the purpose of fighting. And, and it’s, it’s entertainment, I guess, for the nation, for some. But for some it, it gives them an excuse to exercise the bitterness that, that may be deep inside of them. And we’ve, we’ve got to watch what we say, and we’re not doing it. It starts when–in campaigns. You know, campaigns now are opportunities for people to say anything and do anything about one–to each other and about one another. And I think it’s, it’s devastating, and it’ll probably get worse unless something dramatic happens.
I am not clear what more dramatic thing needs to happen than a Congresswoman, her staff, and her constituents being shot in the alcove of a supermarket. But then I remember that Dr. George Tiller was killed in the alcove of his church and that Congress could not bring itself to vote to condemn the act. I remember that bombs have gone off at and killed health care workers in family planning clinics and little has been done to stop this form of violence. I remember that women and doctors every day are assailed as baby-killers and few people in power appear to take this very seriously, least of all politicians. I also remember the seemingly game-changing solidarity in the wake of the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, and the promises of civility…. and how that lasted only as long as it took for some Democrats to question the decision to invade Iraq and how supposedly “leading” newspapers like the Washington Post supported the war without facts.
I want to believe that there will be responsibility over deflection, but I am struggling.