In the wake of the incomprehensible horror in Arizona, it is important to separate two things. There is angry and violent rhetoric that, as former President Bill Clinton pointed out last week, demonizes the other side of political debate in a way that is hurtful to others and unhelpful to the arguments being legitimately raised and debated.
Then there are the actions of someone who, by virtually all accounts, was a troubled person seemingly disassociated from the world around him, political or otherwise. Whether he is insane by the legal definition of incapacity is for others to judge, though that very important distinction brings up a third point which we will address here as well.
But in the immediate aftermath of a tragic shooting that took the lives of a 9-year-old girl, a federal judge and the sort of people we would like to have for neighbors and friends, as well as gravely injuring a congresswoman, it is understandable that Rep. Gabrielle Giffords’ supporters and friends would lash out at political opponents, including one who put crosshairs on her district and spoke of “reloading” in the heated fight against President Barack Obama’s healthcare plan. It is human nature to try to make sense of what is senseless. But both sides have engaged in just such unfair play. As one MSNBC anchor pointed out back when Sarah Pailin chose that unfortunate gun-related imagery: “Campaign rhetoric and war rhetoric have been interchangeable for years.”
“Blame” aside, there is the issue of extreme rhetoric and ad hominem attacks. Isn’t it time to stop calling people you disagree with ‘Nazis’? Like ‘Holocaust,’ the term should be reserved for the unspeakable horror that belongs to that specific time and place alone.
How one side characterizes the other should not be ugly or thoughtless business as usual, even if contentious debate makes for more compelling programming.
“The fact that cable television is ravenous to fill the time—and people fill the time often by going to the extreme—makes better television,” conservative columnist George Will said last week. “It is the structure given by technology that gives our debates a kind of artificial ferocity and clarity.”
And it doesn’t take a Harvard lawyer or an FCC chairman—in the present case one and the same—to see that the Internet is changing how we live and interact. Clinton said last week that it has become an echo chamber for the unhinged. If so, then perhaps we need to pay more careful attention to the impact of what we say.
That would be a good thing. Dialing down the attacks does not, and should not, involve government, beyond the individual legislators who need to lead by example. But let’s be clear: Fixing blame and allowing the debate over polarizing rhetoric to further polarize the nation would be a disservice to the memories of the victims. To use the shooting, horrible as it was, to justify any attempt to regulate political speech would be to dishonor them as well.
Only days before the shooting, in fact, Giffords was on the House floor reciting the First Amendment as part of a reading of the Constitution to mark the convening of the new Congress.
Another disservice was the fact that those following media coverage of the shooter’s arraignment last week had to rely on artist renderings and secondhand observations on his state of mind, which could be a crucial factor in how he is treated inside the legal system. That is because federal trial judges do not have the discretion to allow cameras or microphones into their courts. That is something that, along with the rhetoric, ought to change.
As for that rhetoric, it would be a good idea to bring more civility to our dialog without losing the passion with which each side should rightly defend their views. It is that passion that founded and has forged the nation. But we should also not rush to shift responsibility to either the media, or even violent language, for what happened last week.
“I don’t think this will change the way people vote on the issues,” Will said, “but it may change, and for the better, the way they talk about the issues.” Let’s hope so.
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