Divergent Responses to Giffords Shooting Underscore Difficulty of Changing Political Discourse

Jodi Jacobson

Calls by some for collective reflection and responsibility for a political climate riven with violent language and analogies have been met with scorn by those who've rejected suggestions the issue should even be on the table.

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In the days since a 22-year old gunman killed six and injured 14 others, including Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, a debate has raged about both the tone and content of political discourse in the United States.

Vigorous, sometimes contentious, heated and vociferous debate about ideas, positions, policies, and evidence is an essential part of a democracy.  Freedom of speech is a cherished American value, and is not only a part of our history but also a right protected by our Constitution and our laws.  To protect our freedom, we have to tolerate the full spectrum of speech, including what many might consider hate speech, irresponsible speech, or offensive speech.  But political and social maturity requires an understanding that with free speech comes responsibility, and that our words do help create a climate in which actions take place, whether the situation in question is a principal dealing with an environment of bullying in a school, or a political leader dealing with a heated political discourse that veers into the use of violent metaphors. And sometimes we need to all take collective responsibility.

Moreover, whether or not Jared Lee Loughner was directly or indirectly prompted to action by political rhetoric, the evidence of a rise in violence and violent rhetoric in political campaigning in the past two years is unequivocal and worthy of deep examination on its own.  There is and can be a simultaneous truth that a shooting carried out by an individual who is ultimately responsible sheds light on a broader political environment based on violent and hateful rhetoric that is deeply unhealthy, whether or not there is a direct connection.

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But the responses by political leaders and talk show hosts to this tragedy have been wildly divergent, underscoring how difficult it will be to make concrete changes in the either the tone or the content of our discourse. Many have spoken on the need for collective reflection on and responsibility for the tone and content of a political climate riven with language and analogies of violence; others have lashed out at the very suggestion that the environment created by recent political debate should even be examined, whether or not it contributed directly or indirectly to the tragedy in Arizona.  Some appear not to understand the difference between “fighting ideas with ideas and evidence” and fighting a political battle with violent imagery, misleading statements and character assassination.

For example, former President Bill Clinton, speaking from Haiti in response to the shootings said that politicians and others who engage in verbal battle “cannot be unaware of the fact that – particularly with the Internet – there’s this huge echo chamber out there.”

According to NPR, he said the House — now under Republican leadership — should lead the way in toning down the rhetoric.

“This is an occasion for us to reaffirm that our political differences shouldn’t degenerate into demonization, in the sense that if you don’t agree with me you’re not a good American,” Mr. Clinton said. “I’m hoping there will be a lot of good debates that go beyond turning this into politics.”

On MSNBC’s Meet the Press, Congressman Emanuel Cleaver (D-MO), Chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, also spoke to the broader environment and to collective responsibility, consistently using the pronoun, “we.”

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.

On the same program, Congressman Raul Grijalva (D-AZ) took the same tone of collective responsibility and collective action when he said:

ou know, part of what we need to do as leaders is a discourse.  You know, Arizona is at the center of a lot of division and a lot of hard politics.  And from the top to the bottom of our, not only elected leadership, but community leadership, it’s about the civil discourse, it’s about the tone of how we do things.  And Congressman Nadler said something on television yesterday.  He said, you know, “We are opponents, yes, but we’re not deadly enemies.” And I think unless we pass that on and lead by example with our civil discourse and our good debate on these important issues like health care, people feel that there’s impunity to continue to act…

By contrast, a video released by Sarah Palin this morning accuses the media and others who question the role of violent campaign imagery in creating a climate of hate of engaging in a “blood libel,” completely side-stepping the question of whether it is a good thing to promote that same violent imagery in campaigns.

Sarah Palin: “America’s Enduring Strength” from Sarah Palin on Vimeo

Palin’s reference to a “blood libel” is particularly strange given that Giffords is Jewish and the term comes from a centuries-old anti-Semitic claim that Jewish people murdered Christian children to use their blood in religious rituals, in particular the baking of matzos for passover.  As the New York Times notes, “That false claim was circulated for centuries to incite anti-Semitism and justify violent pogroms against Jews.” 

Rather than reflecting on the broader environment he helps to create, Rush Limbaugh instead criticized the response of the Democratic Party and the media, saying that the event has been used to advance the Left’s political interests.

According to ABC News, Limbaugh said: “The left, including the media, cannot accept the reality of a madman slaughtering innocent people. It cannot be ‘individual responsibility’ — they reject that concept anyway.”

Rather than reflecting on the violence, Glenn Beck charged that the “left” was “creating” and “exploiting” the issues.

To his credit, Pat Buchanan, known for his own questionable rhetoric, did speak to collective responsibility for the environment in which we find ourselves on the MSNBC program Morning Joe.

“I’d give everybody the advice to tone down the rhetoric and to get away from the military or the armed metaphors,” he said Monday on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.”

Host Joe Scarborough (R-Fla.), asked Buchanan whether outspoken conservatives ought to apologize for the violent imagery they’ve used in the past.

Buchanan said conservatives “ought to be more careful in the future” but stopped short of criticizing specific examples of such imagery, such as Palin’s map, saying “it is wrong to scapegoat Palin, who is taking heat for having “targeted” Rep. Gabrielle Giffords on her website in what appear to be cross hairs.”

“I do think it is the effort to sort of draw in Sarah Palin or Michele Bachmann into something that is a real tragedy, when what we’re hearing out of Arizona is it had absolutely nothing to do with this individual who, for some reason, is obsessing.”

We still, however, lack a cohesive reflection on the violence, vitriol, character assassination that appear to have become commonplace. And as with anything else, we can’t solve a problem until we agree on what the problem is.

Indeed, if this screenshot (circulated yesterday by colleague @StopBeck of StopBeck.com on Twitter) of Glenn Beck’s homepage in the aftermath of the shootings is any evidence, many of us still remain unclear on the concept.

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