Like most Americans, I was shocked and shaken by the tragedy that occurred yesterday in Tucson. It is, of course, far too early to know what, exactly, motivated this young man to carry out such an attack. As we’ve learned over the last 24 hours, he left a trail of online rants, including a few bizarre YouTube videos concerning currency and the gold-standard and his frustration with people, specifically people in Arizona’s 8th Congressional District, who couldn’t speak English properly. It seems clear that the man wasn’t involved in the Tea Party movement, and it’s also clear that he’s not a liberal or a progressive. It’s ridiculous to pin this man’s derangement on any particular political movement. If his favorite books are indicative of anything, it’s that, as Republican Senator Jon Kyl said, this man didn’t really possess a coherent political philosophy.
However, to me, it’s totally appropriate to call attention to the “vitriolic political rhetoric” that often dominates cable news, talk radio, and the blogosphere. To be sure, violent language has always been a part of the American political process. But it doesn’t mean that we should ignore the unfortunately prescient and ominous things Congresswoman Giffords, a woman former Labor Secretary Robert Reich said could be the “first or second female President,” had previously warned against. She had felt threatened. Last year, someone shot a bullet through her office in Tucson. Thankfully, no one was injured.
Giffords is a conservative Blue Dog Democrat. Last week, in a move that frustrated some liberals, Giffords voted against Nancy Pelosi for Speaker of the House. It was a purely symbolic vote, of course; John Boehner’s victory was preordained. But it speaks to her Blue Dog bonafides and her independence from the so-called Pelosi Democrats that the Tea Party movement and many Republicans had sought to discredit and defeat during last year’s midterm elections. (Giffords didn’t vote for Boehner; she voted for Representative John Lewis). Yet despite Congresswoman Giffords’s record and her status as a Blue Dog, she was one of only twenty incumbent members of Congress specifically “targeted” by Sarah Palin. Giffords’s reelection campaign was heated; her Republican opponent attacked her personally, suggesting that even her own husband wouldn’t vote for her (leaving out the fact that her husband, as a NASA astronaut with children in Texas, had to declare residency in Houston). And then there was the crosshairs ad. From ABC News (bold mine):
Like so much with Palin, the roots are on Facebook. On her Facebook page last year when she posted the a map of 20 congressional districts targeted by SarahPac, the headline of the map: “It’s time to take a stand.”
At the time Giffords reacted to the map in an interview on a cable news program.
“When people do that, they’ve got to realize there are consequences to that action,” Giffords said.
Before any of my conservative friends jump on my case, let me be abundantly clear: This isn’t about Sarah Palin or the Tea Party. It’s about using violent imagery and violent language to promote a certain political agenda, something liberal activists have also been guilty of. It’s about the climate this type of rhetoric can create, and the culture and the narrative it can help to legitimize.
Take a step back. Congresswoman Giffords had been specifically targeted; she’d been victimized by threats before; she became the focus of a national campaign that was funded and promoted by one of the nation’s top Republican leaders; she had expressed, time after time, on national television, that she felt the type of rhetoric employed against her was dangerous and threatening. There’s no escaping from that.
If there is any lesson to be drawn from this awful tragedy, I hope it’s that our political discourse must become more respectful, responsible, and civil. Politics isn’t simply a game. Not only do words have consequences, they inform and define our culture. When you spend tens of millions of dollars on a media campaign that uses violent metaphors against individual politicians, it will leave an impression, and even if you think you’re being figurative or flippant, it’s still irresponsible. The stakes aren’t that high. America is not under attack from within. It’s incendiary to suggest this; it cheapens and simplifies our discourse, and it provides credence to a reactionary, paranoid, and anti-government agenda.
Earlier today, Ezra Klein of The Washington Post referenced the blogger Jon Bernstein. Quoting Mr. Bernstein:
American democracy has thousands and thousands of politicians, all of whom, collectively, are overvillified and undercelebrated. Alas, that’s unlikely to change. What we can hope also won’t change, however, is the very ordinariness of our politicians outside of the presidency, the way they can go about their lives as ordinary citizens, meeting with their fellow citizens and neighbors not just in great democratic events like the one interrupted in Tuscon, but in casual encounters, too.
As a postscript: As a Louisiana blogger, I think it’s appropriate to acknowledge a couple of things. First, it’s worth noting that Louisiana State Senator Karen Carter Peterson is a friend of Ms. Giffords. According to Ms. Peterson, they were both fellows in a program at the Aspen Institute. Shortly after the news broke, Senator Peterson posted a comment on Twitter, expressing prayers and praise for her friend. It’s also worth noting that the older brother of one of Louisiana’s most outspoken and influential progressive bloggers was Congresswoman Giffords’s campaign manager.
This is, undoubtedly, difficult for everyone who knows and has worked for the Congresswoman.
May our humanity and decency sustain all of us.