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WORDS MATTER: Thoughts on Violent Rhetoric & the Tucson Shooting


Surely we will know more in coming days
about what combination of crazy thoughts and imaginings could have caused an obviously disturbed 22-year-old Jared Lee Laughner to reportedly bring a Glock 9mm pistol to a Tucson Safeway supermarket on Saturday, then to wait in line until he was close enough to Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords to shoot her in the head—and begin blasting wildly at others, hitting 18 more people, six of whom he killed, including federal judge, John McCarthy Roll, and 9-year-old Christina Taylor Green.

To tie Laughner’s acts directly to the flaming rhetoric of this or that politician or media host is almost certainly going to turn out to be an inaccurate and disingenuous exercise in partisan blame and opportunism. Whatever his final emotional trigger—according to his writing, videos and the observations of some of his Pima College instructors—Laughner seems to have been showing alarming if undifferentiated signs of mental illness for quite some time now.

Yet, all that said, one cannot escape the plain fact that words matter. Extremely polarizing and fear-inducing rhetoric repeated over and over again by those with big microphones can create a collective mental climate that has an effect—both obvious and subtle—on behavior. To say otherwise is is to deliberately blind oneself to human nature.

The violent and demonizing political imagery that has become coin of the realm in the past few years, may have exactly zero to do with Laughner’s actions. But this moment is an opportunity to have the discussion about words and consequences that is long overdue.


With that in mind, below you’ll find some of the thoughts of those opining on Sunday
that you might want to read further. The first is from George Packer, comes the closest to representing my own thoughts on this cool Sunday afternoon in LA about the tragedy in Tucson:

GEORGE PACKER, THE NEW YORKER

Judging from his Internet postings, Jared Lee Loughner is a delusional young man whose inner political landscape is a swamp of dystopian novels, left- and right-wing tracts, conspiracy theories, and contempt for his fellow human beings. He refers to the gold and silver standard; that doesn’t make Ron Paul responsible for the shootings. He is fond of “Animal Farm”; George Orwell didn’t guide the hand that pulled the automatic pistol’s trigger. Marx and Hitler produced a lot of corpses, but not the ones in Tucson.

But the plate-glass window of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords’s office was shattered last March after the final health-care vote. Judge John Roll, who was among the dead, had received death threats and spent a month with a protection detail. Roll was apparently a bystander to Loughner’s intended target—and maybe the gunman had no idea why he was aiming for Giffords either, maybe he didn’t know how she voted on health care or what her position on Arizona’s draconian immigration law was. It would be a kind of relief if Loughner operated not out of any coherent political context but just his own fevered brain.

But even so, the tragedy wouldn’t change this basic fact: for the past two years, many conservative leaders, activists, and media figures have made a habit of trying to delegitimize their political opponents. Not just arguing against their opponents, but doing everything possible to turn them into enemies of the country and cast them out beyond the pale. Instead of “soft on defense,” one routinely hears the words “treason” and “traitor.” The President isn’t a big-government liberal—he’s a socialist who wants to impose tyranny. He’s also, according to a minority of Republicans, including elected officials, an impostor…..

JAMES FALLOWS THE ATLANTIC

That’s the further political ramification here. We don’t know why the Tucson killer did what he did. If he is like Sirhan, we’ll never “understand.” But we know that it has been a time of extreme, implicitly violent political rhetoric and imagery, including SarahPac’s famous bulls-eye map of 20 Congressional targets to be removed — including Rep. Giffords. It is legitimate to discuss whether there is a connection between that tone and actual outbursts of violence, whatever the motivations of this killer turn out to be. At a minimum, it will be harder for anyone to talk — on rallies, on cable TV, in ads — about “eliminating” opponents, or to bring rifles to political meetings, or to say “don’t retreat, reload.”

MATT BAI, THE NEW YORK TIMES:

The problem here doesn’t lie with the activists like most of those who populate the Tea Parties, ordinary citizens who are doing what citizens are supposed to do — engaging in a conversation about the direction of the country. Rather, the problem would seem to rest with the political leaders who pander to the margins of the margins, employing whatever words seem likely to win them contributions or TV time, with little regard for the consequences.

EZRA KLIEN, THE WASHINGTON POST (posted the day before the shooting)

Given the extremism of the rhetoric at the top, is it any wonder that there is incredible fear trickling down to the grass roots? If those are the stakes, then of course criminalizing any implementation of the [health care reform act] makes sense. Frankly, if those are the stakes, then violent resistance might be required.

Those aren’t the stakes, of course. They’re just the words. And words slip sometimes. Things come out too angry, or too quickly, or too sharply. I’ve had my share of experience with this. But words matter. And the Republican Party hasn’t been slipping up: It’s been engaged in a concerted campaign to scare the population into opposing health-care reform. That may be good politics, but it can have bad consequences.

JOAN WALSH, SALON

…But while we wait to learn the motivation behind Saturday’s shooting, which killed six, including federal Judge John Roll, nine-year old Christine Taylor Green and Gabe Zimmerman, Giffords’ community outreach director, is it really controversial to suggest that the overheated anti-government rhetoric of the last two years, with its often violent imagery, ought to be toned down? Really?

I’ll post more as I find it.

In the meantime….what these people said.

24 Comments

  • Packers comment are off base and by agreeing with him I don’t believe you’ve looked at all aspects of speech that you said is extremely polarizing and fear-inducing rhetoric. Packer blames only the right and I don’t agree with that take. Happens on the left same as the right though or have you never heard people like Alan Grayson or even Alec Baldwin speak?

    I don’t think it’s a time to blame anyone other than the maniac responsible. I’ll bet the ACLU has no problem with the rhetoric you speak of Celeste, after all it’s protected speech isn’t it?

  • One of the leaders of the Republican Party, a Vice-Presidential candidate, but what she – in her tweets – called “bullseyes” and “targets” on Gifford. This same piece of crap called doctor/patient counseling “Death Panels” and that insane, unhinged hate rhetoric was taken up by the Tea Partiers and the FOXoid Right.

    Screw “both sides do it” – that’s just a fucking lie. The Right Wing is a locus of hate speech -Grifters like Palin and the FOX crowd have ginned up insane rhetoric and “legitimatized” it among their lobotimized audience. The shooting probably had little to do with this – but the fact is that the kid had Ayn Rand – along with Mein Kampf and The Communist Manifesto – on his fave list of extremist literature. Nobody in Congress hands out Hitler or Marx to their staffers, but Paul Ryan hands out Ayn Rand, a crackpot Christian-hating loon who thinks even minimal compassion or humility is an affront to the Ego of Right-Thinking Productive “Atlas”-worthy UberMen, to his staffers. And we’ve got Alan West trying to appoint a crank who spouts “Black Panther” style rhetoric about using guns to “remedy” government if ballots don’t do the trick, along with the nutcase running against Harry Reid yammering about “2nd Amendment remedies” like she’s fucking Bill Ayers in 1969. The contemporary “conservative” movement is a toxic sewer. I don’t blame Sarah Palin for these murders, but I would – if she has any sense of decency – suggest that she withdraw from public life after contributing such despicable shit to the public dialogue over HEALTH INSURANCE REFORM. WTF???

    Any “conservative” who feels smug today about the “Death Panel” or “Bullseye” rhetoric that Cong. Gifford had to deal with can go to hell. And probably will.

  • Clarification – when I say that it’s a lie that “both sides” do it, I mean that anecdotally you can cite someone with a “BUSHITLER” sign who shows up on the internet or a street corner rally – but you can’t find the equivalent of a major leader of the Democratic Party or a Presidential-level or senatorial candidate or a candidate for Chief of Staff of a newly-elected congressman on the Democratic side talking about “reloading”, “Bullseye” on Cong. Gifford, or using guns to “remedy” the Constitution or losing at the ballot box. These people – Palin included are some combination of insane or just so opportuni$tic with an eye on raking in the celebrity buck$ that it really is a sick show we’re seeing among the people who’ve hijaced what is (unfairly) labeled “conservative.” Nor do we see elected Democrats in the thrall of or openly promoting extremist philosophies like Ayn Rand’s anti-government, anti-Christian Gospel of Ego/Self, but that crackpot shit is common among dishonest idiots like Paul Ryan who claim to be “conservative” rather than Radical Right. There is no “equivalency” in the current environment.

  • The word from former half-term Governor Pali: “Don’t retreat! Reload!”

    There was a song the Butterfield Band among others used to do: “Get Out of My Life, Woman!”

    The best advice from America in coming weeks and in the light of events to the former half-term Governor with her “Bullseyes!” – “We really have no use for you. We’re adults.”

  • Local law enforcement weighs in:

    On Saturday Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik called Arizona “the Mecca for prejudice and bigotry.” Today the sheriff continued on the same theme:

    “I think that when the rhetoric about hatred, about mistrust of government, about paranoia of how government operates and to try to inflame the public on a daily basis, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, has impact on people especially who are unbalanced personalities to begin with.”

    He also called his state “the tombstone of the United States of America.”

    REPORTER: What are your observations about the state of Arizona gun laws in light of what happened?
    DUPNIK: Well, I think we’re the tombstone of the United States of America…. I have never been a proponent of letting everybody in this state cary weapons under any circumstances that they want, and that’s almost where we are. (from HuffingtonPost)

  • Julianne Malveaux, a radio host and USA Today columnist, caught no flak when she prayed aloud for the death of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. “I hope his wife feeds him lots of eggs and butter and he dies early like many black men do, of heart disease,” she snarled on PBS.

    During the flap over General Jerry Boykin’s views of Islam and the war on terrorism NPR’s Nina Totenberg said, “I hope he’s not long for this world.” When the startled host asked if she were “putting a hit out on this guy,” Totenberg backtracked and said she only wanted to see him expire “in his job.” But this isn’t the first time the NPR diva has publicly wished death on a conservative. “I think he ought to be worried about what’s going on in the Good Lord’s mind,” she said of Senator Jesse Helms in 1995, “because if there is retributive justice, he’ll get AIDS from a transfusion, or one of his grandchildren will.”

    Ed Gillespie, the Republican Party’s one time chairman, accused Democrats of engaging in “political hate speech” when they call Bush a “liar” or a “miserable failure.” But there is a world of difference between labeling someone a failure and labeling him Hitler which was done during his presidency more than once by liberals of all types.

    I could put up links if anyone needs them. It’s that type speech that makes Packer wrong Celeste.

    The Oakland Police Commission doesn’t allow their officers to carry tasers which results in a lesser use of force option relegated to the sidelines and what’s the result, they have to cap a guy in a wheelchair.

    That belongs in this thread about as much as your last comment Reg. The sheriff is a self-proclaimed liberal who should be concentrating on making sure the investigation is handled correctly rather than making assinine political statements based on his own personal feelings. Arizona passes a law that some idiots don’t like while drug cartel members are getting in shootouts in their state with cops and because the people want something down that our government fails to do it’s “hateful”?

    What a bunch of nonsense.

  • Sorry “boy” but it’s shit like doctor/patient counseling characterized as “Death Panels” by major GOP honchos that is totally fucking nuts.

    Take some responsibility for “your side.”

    Oh wait. Responsibility is something the crybabies and hysterics on the Right don’t have any use for. It’s all about finger-pointing, lies and threats.

  • Everyone is scrambling around trying to find some explanation, and someone to blame, for the unfortunately tragic acts of a clearly disturbed mind. Political rhetoric has to be the reason, whether it’s the right wing talk shows or the left wing blogs, or self-agrandising politicians like Sarah Palin, or any combination of them, that has to be to blame for pushing this sick individual over the line.

    Before we go too far down that road, let’s take a look at the final thoughts of this murderously sick person.

    Live Leak managed to grab Jared Lee Laughner’s last YouTube video where he reveals the things that trouble his troubled mind http://www.liveleak.com/view?i=486_1294523402

    If you can bear to read 3 minutes and 46 seconds of the the ravings of a mentally ill person, notice how there’s nothing about health care, illegal immigration, the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, 9/11 government coverups, Obama’s place of birth, or Bush’s ties to Big Oil.

    According to witnesses who survived the needless slaughter and maiming of innocent people participating in the democracy that makes our nation so great, there were no intelligible words uttered by Laughner suggesting that he was acting because of either left or right wing rhetoric.

    But someone has to be blamed. There has to be a rational explanation for irrational action. In the process, bloated egoist politicians will grab the headlines casting blame and seeking new laws to prevent a repetition of this atrocity (sounds familiar?) and in that process, we end up losing more of our civil liberties to protect us from the Laughners of this world.

    I don’t care for the hate speech of Rush Limbaugh anymore than I dislike the hate speech of the Daily Kos. But I will defend their right to be hate-mongers before I will submit to allowing any government to trample those rights, because they are my rights too.

    It’s human nature to crave an easy quick explanation for atrocities like this and 9/11, and to crave a quick fix. But please don’t allow the deranged acts of a sick mind to allow our civil liberties to become the scape goat here.

  • Some folks are sure getting themselves wound up over this latest shooting.

    I have bad news for most of you people, people are killed daily/weekly in America. Did anyone get all excited about the teens in Redlands, Ca who were killed in in lasr week’s racial motivated shooting spree? There could have been more teens killed if the killer had better aim. Where was the outrage over those innoncent teens lives?

    It seems very hypocritiacl to me that a because a demotratic politician was injured in this week’s shooting an “outrage” is now the dejour cause.

    I guess if the killer is perceived as a “poor neglected victim of society” we don’t have the same outrage.

    I’m waiting to hear more about the “racial cleansing” in Arizona. You know who you are.

  • Jack – you missed several points. No one here is talking about censorship – other than the self-censorship that reasonable, decent people engaged in high-profile political discourse use so as to make their contributions coherent, civil and within the bounds of give-and-take that adds to the public square rather than simply trying to gin up mob mentaliities.

    Sarah Palin – with “Death Panels” and “Bullseye Targets” pinned on her adversaries fails that test. I was explicit in not blaming her for this incident, but I do blame her and her followers for taking the entire discourse down into the gutter, which gives the unhinged a greater sense that their hysteria and/or delusions have some legitimacy.

    You set fire to a straw man. Try again.

  • This is indeed a major tragedy in terms of the number of lives lost and touched. I won’t draw any conclusions about the guy until I learn more. My assumption is that for all intents and purposes he went nuts. It happens. I don’t know what this says about Tea Baggers or right wingers any more than Bill O’Reilly knew what the Ft. Hood shooting said about guys with Muslim names and/or religious beliefs. Probably nothing.

  • SF – The last time I noticed Julianne Malveaux was an obscure commentator – in fact, I had to remind myself who the hell she was. And the notion that NPR is a fountain of “hate speech” to rival the Tea Party-lovin’ shock jocks who the GOP leadership bows down to and fears is just completely dishonest – but then that’s hardly surprising in context.

    False equivalency strikes again. But then you need a place to hide the facts.

    “Nonsense” doesn’t even begin to describe this alternate universe we get treated to.

  • Surefire – I just read back in a previous thread and you are simply a damned liar:
    “Of course Reg is also the guy who wnated to have a cop hand him a gun so he could killa guy that what was it, robbed him?”

    My guess is that you can’t help yourself making up “evidence” due to your background…where lying under oath is pretty much SOP.

  • I don’t know why so many people are willing to draw conclusions about this guy until they learn more.

    People are making a lot of assumptions. Why aren’t they willing to assume he just went nuts?

  • The people like Reg who claim it’s all about the “quantity” of strong rhetoric on the right are out of their minds, that’s the bottom line. It’s a ridiculous analysis with no thought behind it, in fact it’s just the type of idiocy people are bitching about. I’ve dealt with crazy a lot and the guy was crazy. Am I also supposed to now believe that all pot smokers are violent Reg?

    That “boy” label I put on you stung huh Reg? You’re all twisted and way off what little game you usually bring. You’re too easy old man, need to chill because nothing you say lands. You should know that by now.

  • Nice cop hate comment Reg, of course your lies about your supposed family member cop and the incident I spoke of indicts you better than I could.

  • “Anything I say about what you’ve said here is fact”

    Double down on your lie – you’re a disgrace. No shame, but we wouldn’t expect it from you.

    I would ask you to find the quote you alleged or apologize, but you don’t have even a shred of decency, honesty or integrity. You’re a professional liar.

  • I just asked you to do the same on another thread. You dug up Ft. Hood, which I’m fine with, so what’s taking you so long to show what a liar I am?

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