Cause and Effect

When I was in Madrid last spring, two friends asked me if it was scary living in a country where people carry guns. At the time, I said no. After yesterday in Tucson, that’s changed.

It’s not scary because yesterday’s rampage was unthinkable. It’s frightening because yesterday’s rampage was inevitable. (h/t to Chez for picking the perfect word)

We don’t know enough yet about the Tucson shooter’s motivations to definitively tie his actions to any one political figure or movement. However, if you advocate, encourage, and foster an environment in which violence is the answer to political disagreement, you then own the consequences when someone follows through. If you build a cult of personality that thoughtlessly and deliberately spreads lies designed to push buttons (death panels, for example), and you knowingly prey on the ignorance and/or desperation of people looking for someone to blame for their everyday struggles, you don’t get to rewrite history or play dumb when the sparks you fanned catch fire.

There’s a PSA running on TV in the DC area that shows a teenage kid getting a tattoo. As the camera pans out, you see his entire body is covered in ink – all insults. His cell phone buzzes, and he tells the artist the next one will be “worthless” and there’s room on his back. The tagline: There’s a thin line between words and wounds. It’s an anti-digital harassment campaign, but it makes a good point the so-called adults running the angry right could stand to learn. Words can have consequences. You can’t yell fire in a crowded theater and then be surprised – or claim surprise – when someone gets trampled.

I don’t use Twitter very often, but I found it more useful than anything on TV as events were unfolding yesterday afternoon. The amount of speculation and rumor the cable networks were passing off as news was embarrassing. In contrast, I found a running conversation online that was helping to sort through the flood of information in real time. Nothing was confirmed until it was.

Twitter was also useful as the smart people I follow started offering educated opinions. For instance, from Peter Daou:

Infuriating that media never acknowledge profound imbalance: the left attacks the right’s ideas, the right attacks the left’s very existence.

Roger Ebert:

Sarah Palin rummages online frantically erasing her rabble-rousing Tweets like a Stalinist trimming non-persons out of photos.

Today, many are pointing to this piece by James Fallows who writes the following:

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.”

I’ve already seen some on the right dismiss the conversation of violent political rhetoric as a deliberate diversionary tactic by the left. I challenge and encourage the media not to take the bait on this one. No one reasonable on the left is saying one crazy guy’s actions are undoubtedly the fault of one particular political candidate or party. What they are saying is that political candidates and parties cannot endorse “2nd Amendment remedies” to ideological disagreements and then pretend they had nothing to do with setting stage for someone to bring a gun to a grocery store and shoot a member of Congress in the head.

As I write, someone on Twitter just produced this interesting nugget. Apparently, the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) released a target map back in 2004. Here’s why this is insignificant, and TV reporters should not use the DLC map as a counter to Palin’s gun sight-speckled graphic. The DLC doesn’t command a large following and doesn’t tour the country whipping crowds into a frenzy spewing words of anger and hate. 2004 is not 2011, and the political tone now is infinitely more heated than it was six years ago. An archery target is not a gun sight, and the head of the DLC doesn’t brag about gun ownership or star in a reality show wielding a gun. And finally, putting an archery target on a state is a lot different than putting a gun sight on a person, and Palin’s map – unlike the DLC’s – encourages followers to take aim at individual people.

Not every story has an equal point and counterpoint. Sometimes there is very clear imbalance. The political left doesn’t promote violent revolution, physical confrontation, or bringing guns to public rallies. The rhetoric isn’t coming from both sides of the aisle. This is a characteristic unique to the right. And any attempt by the press to dismiss that truth is just plain wrong.

The Tucson shooter targeted Rep. Giffords because she’s a political figure, and whether or not his ideology lines up with any particular rhetoric or his motivation can be tied to any particular person or movement remains to be seen. But what’s abundantly clear is that we’ve reached a tipping point. As Sheriff Clarence Dupnik (Pima County, AZ) just said in a presser:

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

We knew this was going to happen. It was bound to happen. And like everyone else today, I’m really sad it did.

3 thoughts on “Cause and Effect”

  1. So a leftist was inspired by a conservative to gun down a moderate to conservative democrat who voted against Nancy Pelosi?

  2. Nope. A mentally unstable person bought a gun and shot a government representative at point blank range through the head in an environment where certain individuals with very loud megaphones regularly encourage anger, stoke paranoia, and imply violence is an acceptable remedy for political dissatisfaction.

    As I said, we don't know enough about this particular shooter and his motivations to tie him to any one person or any one movement. But this incident shines a very necessary spotlight on the increasingly toxic rhetoric that's drowning out rational conversation.

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