I am sick at heart over what happened in Arizona. It's an appalling act, and while I am not one to pray I will be praying for the recovery of Congresswoman Giffords, and for the family of US District Judge Roll, who lost his life, for the family of the nine-year-old child who lost hers, and all the others affected by this tragedy.
But I cannot help myself from saying, in grief and anger, this was not a random tragedy.
The gunman was mentally unstable, to be sure, and his schizophrenia or whatever thought disorder he suffers from clearly was the proximate cause of today's terrible event. But the proximate cause was not the sole cause, not by any means.
Our political discourse is broken, badly broken. The rhetoric, largely but not entirely from the right side of the political spectrum, has become dangerously unhinged. While threats of violence are nowhere to be found in the direct words of the right wing politicians and influential leaders of the movement, the language of violence is pervasive. Nowhere will you find a conservative directly inciting people to commit acts of violence against their political enemies, but the vocabulary used is that of war, in which no compromise is possible, in which the opposition is evil incarnate. 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. This relentlessly hostile rhetoric has become standard issue on the right. On the left it appears in anonymous comment threads, not congressional speeches and national T.V. programs.
- Congresswoman Bachmann: "I want people in Minnesota armed and dangerous on this issue of the energy tax, because we need to fight back," said Bachmann. "Thomas Jefferson told us, having a revolution every now and then is a good thing. And the people - we the people - are going to have to fight back hard if we're not going to lose our country," and, "Where tyranny is enforced upon the people, as Barack Obama is doing, the people suffer and mourn."
- Sarah Palin famously tweeted, "Don't Retreat, RELOAD!"
- Sharron Angle, Tea Party candidate in Nevada, famously suggested on more than one occasion that violent revolution was an option if the GOP did not win at the ballot box: "the Second Amendment is the right to keep and bear arms for our citizenry ... the Founding Fathers intended this to stop tyranny. This is for us when our government becomes tyrannical... I'm hoping that we're not getting to Second Amendment remedies. I hope the vote will be the cure for the Harry Reid problem." And also, in the same context, referred to "taking out" Harry Reid."
- ''Our nation was founded on violence. The option is on the table. I don't think that we should ever remove anything from the table as it relates to our liberties and our freedoms.'' Tea Party-backed Texas GOP congressional candidate Stephen Broden
- Radio host Michael Savage compared Obama to Pol Pot, adding, "Only vigilance and resistance to this baby dictator, Barack Hussein Obama, can prevent the Khmer Rouge from appearing in this country."
- Glenn Beck -- well, it's hard to pick a single example of overheated rhetoric from this paranoic demagogue, since pretty much it's all the time, but he has said "Obama is trying to destroy the country and is pushing America toward civil war," or similar thoughts multiple times, and has had many many references to Obama and progressives as Satan, Hilter, Stalin, and has called for or warned of "revolution" multiple times. Also, ''I'm thinking about killing Michael Moore, and I'm wondering if I could kill him myself, or if I would need to hire somebody to do it. ... No, I think I could. I think he could be looking me in the eye, you know, and I could just be choking the life out.''
- ''My only regret with Timothy McVeigh is he did not go to the New York Times Building.'' Ann Coulter
- ''He has no place in any station of government and we need to realize that he is an enemy of humanity,'' - Rep. Trent Franks (R-AZ), on President Obama's decision to fund international family planning organizations that support legal abortion.
- Rush Limbaugh almost comes across as the reasonable elder statesman, opining that Obama is a socialist and that Limbaugh is rooting for him, "to fail."
- Erik Erickson, of CNN and Redstate.com, asked what is in hindsight a particularly sickening question: "At what point do the people ... march down to their state legislator's house, pull him outside, and beat him to a bloody pulp?"
- And, as is now well-known, Palin's PAC featured gunsight logos, crosshairs, over the district of Rep Giffords and 19 others. Her opponent in the election held an event "Get on Target for Victory; Help remove Gabrielle Giffords from office; shoot a fully automatic M16." Rep Giffords, presciently, warned that symbolism like that "will have consequences." Tragically, she was right.
- And the popular movement of the Tea Party, while well-behaved and nonviolent in its rallies, also has a pervasive element of the threat of violence in many of its popular slogans; the quote "The tree of liberty must from time to time be watered with the blood of patriots." was popular on signs at many of the rallies, as well as the not-very understated threat in the movement to bring guns to rallies.
I am not aware of similar rhetoric coming from the left. If there is, from an elected official, candidate for office, or major media personality, please cite it in the comments and I will add it to the list. I will stipulate in advance that Alan Grayson was way over the line numerous times, and that Olbermann many times excessively demonizes his opponents. Still, the implicit threat of violence is as far as I know unheard of in the liberal public discourse.
Rhetoric Translating into Violence
The reason I am so worried and upset about this recent shooting is that while it appears to be the isolated act of a lone gunman, it is one of a series of events which have become increasingly common since Obama became president -- incidents which have been politically motivated or influenced and have caused multiple deaths, most commonly deaths of our public servants in law enforcement. I also remember a much-criticized Homeland Security report issued just after Barack Obama took office, which quite accurately warned of rising right-wing violence. It was decried by conservatives at the time and withdrawn. Consider, though, this sad litany of deaths and injuries caused by armed nuts inspired by the hyperbolic rhetoric from the right, just within the last two years:
- A heavily armed (and armored) California man engaged in a shootout with CHP en route to a planned assault on the headquarters of the ACLU and the environmental Tides Foundation. He later said he was "inspired" by Glenn Beck's calls for revolution.
- Joe Stack, an anti-government conspirast, crashed his airplane into an IRS Building.
- James von Brunn, white supremacist, killed a guard at the Holocaust museum.
- Pittsburgh police shooting in which a man killed three Pittsburgh police officers because he was worried about his guns being confiscated; he also had Glenn Beck-inspired fears of FEMA concentration camps.
- Libertarian and anti-government activist John Bedell shot two Pentagon police officers.
- The Tennessee man who killed three at a Unitarian church in an effort to "kill liberals who are ruining our country." He chose a liberal church because if "he could not get to the leaders of the liberal movement that he would then target those that had voted them in to office."
- Florida man, disturbed about Obama's election, killed two police officers at a gun range.
- Wichita physician George Tiller was gunned down in his church by an Operation Rescue member.
- Minutemen militia affiliates killed a hispanic man and his nine-year-old daughter in their home after planning to "start a revolution against the United States Government."
These are the recent episodes that have actually progressed to true violence. One should not forget, not too long ago, there were the famous right-wing attacks on America in Oklahoma city, and the Ruby Ridge siege and the milita movement during the Clinton adminstration. There have also been many less serious cases of right-wing violence, which were aborted by law enforcement in the pre-attack stages, as well as serious threats and near misses:
- The three white supremacists arrested for planning to shoot Obama on the day of his inauguration because "no nigger should ever live int he White House."
- And the two different white supremacists with the same plan.
- The Hutaree militia, of which nine heavily armed members were arrested for preparing to kill law enforcement and "oppose by force the US government."
- Phoenix pastor Steven Anderson told his congregation to "pray for Barack Obama to die and go to hell." The next day, one of his congregants showed up at an Obama event with an assault rifle and a handgun. Radio hosts on the right defended his right to bear arms at a political rally.
- Mass Tea Partier Greg Girard, fearing martial law and with apocalyptic fantasies, arrested for stockpiling weapons.
This is to say nothing of the innumerable kooks who have been arrested (or simply investigated) for sending threatening emails or leaving death threats. This is to say nothing of the routine vandalism of congressional offices during the health care debate. The fact that Judge Roll received "hundreds" of death threats after certifying a civil rights/immigration case to proceed is a sad example of how the hyper-intensity of the debate has consequences. Death threats against public officials have become routine, unfortunately. Normally, they are not serious, but unfortunately in some cases, the mentally unstable decide to follow through on the threats.
Again, for those who bring up the false equivalency of "both sides do it," I should point out that there was as far as I am aware not a single example of left-wing politically-inspired violence in the last ten years. And I'm not talking about scuffles at rallies, I'm talking about people with guns trying to kill other people for politically-inspired reasons.
Apologists for the right
Many reasonable and thoughtful conservatives who themselves would never use such loaded or vitriolic verbiage seem to feel compelled to defend Palin et al. "Palin never called for violence." They demur: rhetoric is just joking, just banter. These are just figures of speech, and are never meant to be taken seriously. They argue that there is no direct incitement to violence. They object that the link between the incitement by public figures and the actual violence is too tenuous.
To a very limited degree, they are right. Palin, I am quite sure, never actually wanted violence, and certainly never explicitly called for it. The responsibility for the violence lies with the gunmen. But is it false and dishonest to claim that the words, the language, the environment created by the political figures who deliberately cultivate for political gain an absolutist struggle of good versus evil have no relationship to the acts of the deranged who listen them and take what seems to be the next logical step.
Others object that this or that violent gunman may not have been actually motivated out of politics, or that they were actually liberals or democrats, or that their mental illness makes this all impossible to understand. We don't know why the Arizona killer did what he did. If he is as delusional as his internet trail suggests, we'll never understand. But we know that it has been a time of extreme, implicitly violent political rhetoric and imagery: 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. This is not "Politicizing a tragedy," as apologists for the right are already complaining. The attempted assassination of an elected official is inherently political and it is completely germane to discuss the political environment that led to it. When MLK was gunned down, there was no controversy about discussing the role racism played in his murder; similarly, when right-leaning psychopaths are repeatedly taking up arms against the government, it is appropriate and necessary to examine the forces which are driving that sort of behavior.
Put more simply: The point I am trying to make is that Republicans need to stop whipping up crazy people with violent political rhetoric. This is really not a hard concept to follow. There are a lot of nuts out there with access to weapons. Stop egging them on.
To be clear: I support the first amendment and I do not propose any sort of censorship or restrictions on political speech. I do not think that there is any individual on the right who should share legal culpability for the acts of madmen. I do think, however, it is incumbent on citizens of all political leanings to call out and reject overheated, absolutist, demonizing, or violent speech, wherever it may come from. And I wish we could make it clear to the professional rabble-rousers whose careers depend on generating fear and hysteria, that they are poisoning the public discourse.
And we should remember the remarks President Bill Clinton made on the anniversary of the Oklahoma City Bombing about the use of political rhetoric.
"What we learned from Oklahoma City is not that we should gag each other or that we should hold less passion for the positions we hold, but that our words really do matter. There is this vast echo chamber, and the words fall on the serious and delirious alike. Have at it. Go fight. Do whatever you want. You don't have to be nice. But be careful with what you say and do not advocate violence."
As promised, a couple of examples of left wing violence: the guy who planned to bomb the RNC convention in 2004 is a legit counter example, and the ELF/ALF are also examples of leftist groups who employ political violence. I have no trouble denouncing them.