Sunday, January 9, 2011

Tucson, Arizona

The tragedy in Arizona this weekend is nothing short of a tragedy. Details are still a little sketchy, so it's difficult to assess the aftermath of all of this, but there are positive signs for her recovery. Hope and prayers always go out to those that were killed in the shooting.

Of course, in the immediate aftermath, my email and Facebook feeds were filled with blame--mostly against conservatives and Sarah Palin who, about a year ago, posted a map with crosshairs "targeting" various congressional candidates for defeat in last November's election. Other people--the usual suspects, Limbaugh, Beck, Hannity, etc.--were also lumped in with blame.

This is, of course, disingenuous. The only person to blame is the shooter, who, at this point, appears to be a deranged individual with mental problems. That's not stopping people from more less less claiming that Palin and--by extention--Tea Party Republicans pulled the trigger themselves. Or, to use the appropriate code words, "fostered an environment that makes violence acceptable." Using crosshairs, for example, is the exact sort of imagery that will caused an unbalanced person to seek out and murder a congresswoman. And allowing people to own handguns is simply asking for the public executions of politicians.*

Military terminology has been a long tradition in any political arena, not just the United States. We routinely talk about "battleground states" and "character assassination" and "bombshell." William Safire's political dictionary--the gold standard of political vocabulary--is filled with so-called "violent" terms, from centuries ago to the last election. Pundits and politicians use these terms not because they literally want to slay their enemies, but they use it to show forcefulness while knowing that individuals will understand the concept in context. No one can go through life excising every borderline graphic, allusion, or phrase that might have a 1% chance of setting off a deranged man with a hair trigger.**

People often tend to think the current climate of the last ten years or so as some awful nadir of political intemperance, but this is flat out wrong. Even if we assume away the contentious period of the Civil War, it was only half a century ago that the streets were filled with riots, universities were getting bombed, and police officers being assaulted.And the perpetrators of those acts weren't mentally deranged, but rather had a narrow, specific political goal in mind.  There was never any halcyon era of rhetoric in the United States--in fact, it's one of the drawbacks of having a fractious democracy. This was quite by design.

Obviously, this isn't to minimize the violence that's happened against Representative Giffords. But to immediately point a finger and accuse the opposing ideology solves no problems.  In fact, it's a touch hypocritical--by falsely accusing public figures of causing the shooting they clearly had nothing to do with, the rhetoric is already ratcheted up.

Some further reading: The Daily Beast and Slate.

*I'm not exaggerating here--this is pretty much the direct opinion of people who should know better. The more professional ones know how to couch it in indirect terms, but the sentiment is the same.
**A case can be made that, after the vandalism against several congressional offices, it may have been wise to take Palin's map down. I'm somewhat sympathetic to that, but only because it's good PR. Actually claiming that the map was a blueprint for revolution is downright idiotic, and the fact that it wasn't taken down makes no difference.

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