Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Public Discourse and the Arizona Shooting

It's been an intense few days since the tragic shooting in Tuscon that killed federal judge John Roll, severely injured Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, and left several others dead or wounded. The country is in mourning, and the alleged shooter, Jared Loughner, has since been charged with several felony counts. Public debate has erupted over the role of right-wing rhetoric in inciting Loughner to violence, and while the debate is not a Religious Right issue per se, I want to discuss it here because of its importance.

One point of contention has been the role of violent right-wing rhetoric in Loughner's decision to go on a rampage. Sheriff Clarence Dupnik is not alone in his calls to tone down violent political rhetoric in this country. Several progressive commentators have argued as well that aggressive right-wing rhetoric has create a political climate that incites unstable people to violence.

For example, Daily Kos recently published a post on stochastic terrorism, which it defined as "the use of mass communications to stir up random lone wolves to carry out violent or terrorist acts that are statistically predictable but individually unpredictable." The Daily Kos commentary argued that Glenn Beck, Bill O'Reilly, and other right-wing commentators are guilty of this, citing incidents right-wing violence before the Arizona shooting. On Morning Joe, Rick Scarborough lambasted the hateful rhetoric of people like Glenn Beck, arguing that such venom will have a "corrosive impact" on politics. Think Progress provided examples of Republican uses of death imagery in their political rhetoric health care reform, and Salon cataloged the violent, quasi-revolutionary rhetoric of the Tea Party movement and conservative politicians. In a January 10th press release, Media Matters CEO David Brock urged News Corp CEO Rupert Murdoch to reign in the violent rhetoric of its right-wing commentators, particularly Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin. David Badash at 365 Gay and Jodi Jacobson at RH Reality Check have similarly made arguments linking violent right-wing rhetoric to political violence.

Finally, on Countdown, Keith Olbermann made an impassioned demand for civility in public discourse, condemning violent rhetoric and calling for accountability from commentators and politicians. (Hat tip to Advocatus Atheist.)

On the other hand, some commentators attribute Loughner's actions to mental illness rather than the country's political climate. Chris Daly penned a commentary for the Boston Globe claiming that the Tuscon shooting has more to do with mental illness and easy access to weapons than political rhetoric. A deeper understanding of mental illness, better mental health treatment, and stricter gun control may be more efficacious in preventing violence than scaling down political rhetoric, he argued. At RH Reality Check, Amanda Marcotte claimed that Loughner slipped through the cracks of our mental health system, which has been weakened by funding cuts.

In an earlier post, I noted similarities between Loughner's writings and Sovereign Citizen movement rhetoric, but now that more information is available, I am doubtful that he had any meaningful involvement in the movement. Rather, Loughner appears to be a very disturbed man with a propensity for violence, who may or may not have been exposed to conspiracy theories and fringe ideas. His severe mental illness seems to have been the strongest factor in his violent rampage in Tuscon.

That does NOT mean, however, that right-wing rhetoric hasn't gotten out of hand. Some right-wing rhetoric has contained violent, fear-laden content, and it has been rightly condemned by many progressive and moderate observers. Toxic rhetoric coarsens our culture, poisons our public discourse, and sometimes incites unstable people to commit violence. Whether or not right-wing words had anything to do with Loughner's rampage, it is healthy for the country to be having this conversation. May greater respect for civility, and deeper reflection on our discourse emerge from it.

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Unfortunately, some right-wing commentators are still slinging mud in the wake of the Arizona tragedy. Right Wing Watch notes the outpouring of contempt toward Sheriff Dupnik that has come from some conservative commentators (see here and here). Rush Limbaugh made the outrageous claim that the Democratic Party is supposedly supporting Loughner (!) The anti-abortion website LifeSite News laments that the "abortion lobby" and other liberals are supposedly blaming the Tea Party movement for the shootings. According to Edge Boston, Baltimore AM radio station WCBM posted a claim that the left is supposedly blaming conservatives for the shooting, but not the shooter himself. The right-wing World Net Daily claims that Loughner attended a high school that is supported by an education group founded by former Weather Underground member Bill Ayers.

:: sighs ::

For additional commentary, visit the following links.

A Feather Adrift: Welcome to America: Land of the Violent

Extremities: On the Assassination

SPLC Hatewatch: Who is Jared Lee Loughner?

Box Turtle Bulletin: It Happened Here

For political cartoons on the Arizona shooting, see Slowpoke and This Modern World

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