Don't Say Gabrielle Giffords' Shooting Not Related to Violent Rhetoric

Inflammatory talk might be protected by the First Amendment but the price may be our democracy.

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It would be wrong, not to mention unfair and destructive, to blame the Tea Party movement or any other political force for what happened to Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. But it would be equal folly to treat the shooting as though it had nothing to do with the sort of violence-themed and inciteful rhetoric employed by some leaders and followers of the Tea Party.

We are all responsible for our behavior, and the shooter who took six lives and injured 14 other individuals is no exception. The “Twinkie defense” does not excuse a murderer hopped up on sugar. The availability of pornography does not excuse rapists. And Jared Loughner, charged with the Tuscon shooting rampage, cannot blame his apparent crime on the heated and offensive rhetoric uttered by people who should know better. [Photo Gallery: Gabrielle Giffords Shooting in Arizona.]

Still, they should know better. And they should accept some responsibility, not for the horrific crime itself, but for accelerating a hostile and highly provocative environment that at its best, prevents Congress from working together and at worst, results in tragedy.

Much has been made of former GOP vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin’s “targeting” of congressmen and women she doesn’t like, with crosshairs over their images to suggest guns. And then there was her comment that Americans shouldn’t retreat, but rather “reload” to oust lawmakers who don’t meet the Tea Party movement standards. Sharron Angle, the failed Republican Senate candidate from Nevada, famously talked of a “ Second Amendment solution” to last year’s Democratic control of Washington. A protester in 2009 at a Capitol Hill rally against the healthcare overhaul carried a sign that said, “Next Time, We’ll Be Armed.” Congressmen were threatened, and their offices vandalized, in the lead-up to the healthcare overhaul vote. [ See editorial cartoons about the Tea Party.]

Those were obnoxious words and behavior, an appalling effort to whip up the conservative voter base at the expense of any kind of civility. And it worked: the rhetoric of both candidates and of anonymous Internet posters got more and more heated, especially as the cowards on the Internet had to “shout” more loudly to be heard--and on the Internet, shouting more loudly means ratcheting up the written attacks and rhetoric. They won seats in Congress, but at what cost? A bullet in the head of another lawmaker?

As our mothers told us when we played dangerous games as kids, it’s all well and fun until someone gets hurt. And anyone who made gun references when expressing opposition to any member of Congress should think about what those words mean to a disturbed person.

Of course, no one believes Palin genuinely advocates shooting political opponents. But chillingly, her initial response to the tragedy was to express “sincere condolences” to the victims and their families. Her statement did not condemn the shooter. [ See 10 reasons Sarah Palin would be a bad president.]

Arizona Sen. John McCain had it right, noting in his statement:

Whoever did this; whatever their reason, they are a disgrace to Arizona, this country and the human race, and they deserve and will receive the contempt of all decent people and the strongest punishment of the law.

We still don’t know whether Loughner had a political motivation, but that’s a tertiary point (the second point being: how did an obviously unstable person, ousted from community college and rejected by the military, buy a gun?). The question we must ask ourselves is, how can we run a democracy if people believe the only way is their way? And that people who disagree with them should be eliminated?

Troll the Internet, and the “dialogue” on comment sites is not characterized by a unified call for civility. It’s the same old battle--Tea Party denizens labeling Loughner as a radical liberal, and worrying that the tragedy would lead the government to “outlaw” the Tea Party. Those on the other side come close to calling members of the Tea Party a murderous enterprise. That’s hardly a sign of the changes that need to come.

As much as the Internet commentators across the board defend their hateful and exaggerated remarks as free speech, they miss the other scary element of the shootings: they were an attack not just on people, but on our way of life. Speaker John Boehner reminded the country of that extremely important point, noting that “an attack on one who serves is an attack on all who serve.” He’s dead right. While the American right of free speech may give people the right to say whatever hateful and provocative thing they want, the price may be democracy itself.