So far, it appears that the person who targeted Democratic Rep. Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona for assassination, in Saturday’s shooting rampage that left 6 people dead and many others seriously wounded, was not directly inspired by the virulent and violent political rhetoric that has been dominating the public discourse over the past 2 years and beyond. And in this post, I am not trying to assign blame for the shooting rampage to anyone aside from the deranged, homicidal gunman, Jared Lee Loughner. But this national tragedy has provided an opportunity for us to reflect on the type of political conversation we engage in both in public and in private. Last March, I posted about some of the recent violence and violent rhetoric. In the aftermath of the passage of the health care reform bill, many prominent opponents of the bill used inappropriate and irresponsible rhetoric that included implicit violent and hateful messages.
In “Before Shooting, A Campaign Season Rife With Gun Rhetoric,” Rachel Slajda points to some other perhaps even more disturbing examples of irresponsible speech used by mostly conservative politicians during the recent campaign season:
Rep. Giffords’ own opponent, Republican Jesse Kelly, had a gun-themed fund-raiser in June in which supporters could come and shoot an M-16 rifle with Kelly. It was promoted thusly: Get on Target for Victory in November. Help remove Gabrielle Giffords from office. Shoot a fully automatic M16 with Jesse Kelly.
Robert Lowry, a Republican challenger to Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schulz (D-FL), stopped by a local Republican event in October. The event was at a gun range, and Lowry shot at a human-shaped target that had Wasserman Schulz’s initials written next to it.
Stephen Broden, a Republican challenger to Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), in late October said that violent revolution is “on the table.”
“People are really looking toward those Second Amendment remedies and saying, my goodness, what can we do to turn this country around? I’ll tell you, the first thing we need to do is take Harry Reid out,” said Sharon Angle, the GOP’s candidate for Harry Reid’s Senate seat.
From 2009: Rep. Gregg Harper (R-MS) told Politico that he hunts Democrats. Asked about the Congressional Sportsmen’s Caucus, he said, “We hunt liberal, tree-hugging Democrats, although it does seem like a waste of good ammunition.”
New Rep. Allen West (R-FL) almost hired a Florida talk-radio host, Joyce Kaufman, as his chief of staff. But Kaufman withdrew after media coverage of some of her more fiery statements, such as: “I am convinced that the most important thing the Founding Fathers did to ensure me my First Amendment rights was they gave a Second Amendment,” she told a tea party crowd last summer. “And if ballots don’t work, bullets will.”
Slajda has more disturbing examples. I’m not implying here that these politicians intended to promote violence. I do not have any reason to think that is the case. But by using this kind of violent rhetoric, they are playing with fire. Lest you think that such speech is harmless, here is an actual example of where a deranged man shot a politician after receiving encouragement on the radio to “take her out”:
Mary Rose Wilcox, a member of the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors in Arizona, was shot in 1997, while walking out of a board meeting, by a man who later said he was angry at her support for a baseball stadium tax. The first Hispanic woman elected to the board, Wilcox, a Democrat, had been the target of talk-radio tirades telling Maricopa County residents to “take her out.” “I knew at the time that the hate had been caused by a lot of the rhetoric that had gone on,” Wilcox said. “At the trial, the man actually said, ‘I shot her because the radio said I should take her out.'”
So while Sarah Palin’s infamous “crosshairs” map that targeted Rep. Giffords, and her rhetoric of “reload” and “lock and load,” may not have led to Saturday’s shooting rampage, they could have. There is a difference between freedom of speech and using responsible speech. We all probably recall the international outcry about the Florida pastor who announced he was going to burn Korans on the anniversary of the September 11th attacks. Many political leaders from both parties as well as military leaders warned that this man’s actions would endanger lives of American soldiers and innocent civilians across the Middle East. While the pastor had the freedom of speech to do so, such an action would have been incredibly reckless and irresponsible. The same goes for the violent rhetoric in contemporary politics. While I know there are examples of this on both sides of the spectrum, it is overwhelmingly a problem of the political right. Freedom of speech does not absolve us of personal responsibility. In addition to moderating our own rhetoric, let’s also hold our elected leaders responsible for their speech and not patronize the talk show hosts who employ such divisive and evil language.
In another earlier post, I described how the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints recently issued a renewed call for civility in our public discourse. Elder Quentin L. Cook of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles recently stated,
Many in this world are afraid and angry with one another. While we understand these feelings, we need to be civil in our discourse and respectful in our interactions. This is especially true when we disagree. The Savior taught us to love even our enemies. The vast majority of our members heed this counsel. Yet there are some who feel that venting their personal anger or deeply held opinions is more important than conducting themselves as Jesus Christ lived and taught. I invite each one of us individually to recognize that how we disagree is a real measure of who we are and whether we truly follow the Savior. It is appropriate to disagree, but it is not appropriate to be disagreeable. Violence and vandalism are not the answer to our disagreements.