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Thoughts on the Arizona Shooting & Violent Rhetoric from the Right

Right Wing PropagandaMany, many people have already written about this incident, and I've even read some articles that very closely match my thoughts (such as this one and this one from the Digital Cuttlefish), but I still thought I'd share my opinion.

First of all, it's heart wrenching. I read about that little girl that was shot, and don't even want to imagine what it would be like for that to happen to my daughter. I feel for all of the victims and their families.

Many people were too quick to assume that the right wing's violent rhetoric influenced Loughner. Maybe it did, maybe it didn't, but too many people assumed it did just because it was at a Democratic political rally. By way of comparison, John Hinckley's assassination attempt of President Reagan wasn't politically motivated - it was driven by his obsession with Jodie Foster. So, until all the facts are in, people shouldn't make any assumptions about Loughner's motives.

The problem of attribution is also a bit analagous to storms and global warming. Just like no single hurricane can be attributed to global warming because hurricanes are going to happen, anyway, no single assassination attempt can be linked to the political climate, because, sadly, assassination attempts are also going to happen, anyway. There's a violent lunatic fringe that always exists, which could strike out at any time.

However, this tragedy has focused the spotlight on the right wing's current rhetoric. For a bit of a scary look at the extreme right wing, go read this Insurrectionism Timeline. The events listed in that timeline are a combination of several things - individual acts of crime, organized acts of crime, quotes from politicians, quotes from activists, quotes from pundits, etc. Some have been spun a bit, but the overall picture is one of the extreme right wing being driven towards violence (on a side note, it's people like these that illustrate the dangers of profiling for Muslims when it comes to terrorist threats - we have plenty of homegrown white Christian terrorist threats to worry about, not to mention groups like the Animal Liberation Front).

Looking to just politicians, radio hosts, and television hosts (i.e. those people with real audiences, as opposed to just bloggers), here are a few examples of the most explicitly violent rhetoric.

I am convinced that the most important thing the founding fathers did to ensure me my First Amendment rights was they gave me a Second Amendment. And if ballots don’t work, bullets will.

-Joyce Kaufman, then Chief of Staff for representative elect Allen West

We have a chance to fight this battle at the ballot box before we have to resort to the bullet box. But that's the beauty of our Second Amendment right. I am glad for all of us who enjoy the use of firearms for hunting. But make no mistake. That was not the intent of the Founding Fathers. Our Second Amendment right was to guard against tyranny.

-Catherine Crabill, GOP Candidate for Virginia House of Delegates

I hope that's not where we're going, but, you know, if this Congress keeps going the way it is, 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.

-Sharron Angle, GOP Candidate for Senate to represent Nevada

My children? We're not getting the flu vaccine. No. The state comes and says my kids have to have the flu -- go to hell. Go to hell. Get off my porch. You want to take my kids because of that? Meet Mr. Smith and Mr. Wesson. Get off my land. Period.

-Glen Beck, discussing a hypothetical scenario
source (Go read that site for Beck's bizarre stance on medical neglect not being child abuse)

To keep this final quote in perspective, I debated whether to include it, since, as stated above, my intent was to include more mainstream voices as opposed to just the radical fringe. Turner is the most radical of all the sources I've included here. To get a better idea of his place in the political spectrum, go read this article.

While filing a lawsuit is quaint and the 'decent' way to handle things, we at TRN (Turner Radio Network) believe that being decent to a group of tyrannical scumbags is the wrong approach. It's too soft. Thankfully, the Founding Fathers gave us the tools necessary to resolve tyranny: The Second Amendment. TRN advocates Catholics in Connecticut take up arms and put down this tyranny by force ... If any state attorney, police department or court thinks they're going to get uppity with us about this, I suspect we have enough bullets to put them down, too.

-Harold Turner, Radio Host and Blogger

Those are just a few examples, but I think they make it clear that there is a fair amount of violent rhetoric coming from the right. I'm not saying that all, or even most, conservatives condone this type of language (in fact, some Republicans have resigned due to threats from the Tea Party), but consider the sources. Among those people from the quotes above are candidates popular enough to have won their primary election, and a host on a national TV network. They're a lot less fringe and a lot more mainstream than many would like to think.

Recall as well, that Byron Williams, who was stopped in a shootout on his way to attack the Tides Foundation and the ACLU, specifically cited right wing pundits, including Glen Beck and David Horowitz, as inspiring his actions.

Now, with this in mind, consider Sarah Palin's latest public statement, her video denial of any wrongdoing in relation to the Arizona tragedy. First, to concede a few points to Palin, like I said above, it is premature to say that Loughner was motivated by right wing rhetoric. And even if it turns out that he was, Palin's rhetoric hasn't been the worst there is. Her cross hair map, while certainly not in the best taste, wasn't a specific call to violence, and was nowhere near on the same level as Neal Horsely's Nuremberg Files. She also made a good point about Representative Robert Brady's overreaction in wanting a law that would restrict free speech.

However, I disagreed with most of the rest of the video. The one point that's made some of the most headlines, her use of the term, blood libel, was rather tasteless and insulting, but it wasn't the worst part of her video.

Palin's overall message is where I strongly disagree with her. Consider her statement:

Acts of monstrous criminality stand on their own. They begin and end with the criminals who commit them, not collectively with all the citizens of a state.

The easy point here is to show Palin's hypocrisy, considering her opposition to the Ground Zero mosque. If the responsibility for all crimes is shouldered solely by those who committed them, what possible reason could she have to oppose the mosque?

Ignoring her hypocrisy and looking at the actual sentiment, I disagree. Noone is an island. We're all connected to our society, and are shaped and influenced by it. Similarly, we all have an impact on our surroundings, as well. One very obvious example is parenting. Us parents are held accountable for our children, because everyone knows how much influence parents have over our children. Moving past that child parent relationship, we influence all of those around us, from simple interactions like smiling at them, to giving them advice about issues.

People in the public spotlight, whether they like it or not, do have a bigger sphere of influence than the rest of us. Their words and actions are observed by a great many people, and so they do need to be careful of what they say in the public light. A very important consideration here is that not everybody is well balanced. If a public figure knows there's a chance that using certain language could inspire some of those unbalanced people to act out in bad ways, then they ought to reconsider using that language.

Individuals need to take responsibility for their actions. Byron Williams ultimately pulled the trigger, and so carries the bulk of the responsibility for his shootout with the police. But, had the pundits who spread misinformation and violent rhetoric not done so, Williams may not have committed his crimes, and so those people share some of the responsibility for what he did, and they should own up to it.

Palin tried to paint the extreme right's rhetoric as 'heated' debate. Consider the following two quotes from her speech.

And they claim political debate has somehow gotten more heated, just recently. But when was it less heated? Back in those calm days when political figures literally settled their differences with dueling pistols? In an ideal world, all discourse would be civil, and all disagreements cordial, but our founding fathers knew they weren't designing a system for perfect men and women. If men and women were angels, there would be no need for government. Our founders' genius was to design a system that helped settle the inevitable conflicts caused by our imperfect passions in civil ways. So we must condemn violence if our republic is to endure.
When we take up our arms, we're talking about our vote. Yes, our debates are full of passion, but we settle our political differences respectfully, at the ballot box.

I'm not really old enough to have a feel for how the political climate now compares to that of the past. I know it certainly seems more heated right now, but I can't be sure if that's simply because I've started paying more attention to politics. However, I have had a few discussions with people older than me, and many of them do feel that politics is more divided now than it has been for a while.

Her statements about heated debate seem disingenious. I'm glad she at least paid lip service to non-violence, but she's acting as if right wing politicians have only argued passionately, never suggesting any violent actions, and that any supposedly violent language was merely metaphor. Refer back to those quotes I included up above. When a candidate refers to fighting "at the ballot box before we have to resort to the bullet box", another refers to "Second Amendment remedies", and a chief of staff shouts that "if ballots don’t work, bullets will", I don't think it's hard to take those as threats. If they were intended as metaphors, they were very irresponsible ones, considering how they could be interpreted by many of their constituents.

Before assigning any blame for this particular incident outside of Loughner himself (and even then, he still has the right to a trial), people should wait until they have all the facts. However, the extreme right's rhetoric is dangerously violent, and has in fact been cited as the reason for criminal actions in other recent events. Rather than pretending that this violent rhetoric doesn't exist, political leaders should step up and take some responsibility for their political party, apologizing for what has already been said, and strongly denouncing this type of language in the future.

Updated 2011-01-17 - I moved Turner's quote to the last, and added the explanation of his place in politics - he really is less mainstream than the other examples I used.


Well argued, from my perspective out here in Australia, where the most we ever see - thankfully - of Glenn Beck and most of the other pundits is when they are quoted on The Daily Show. It is going to be extremely interesting at the trial - will he admit to being heavily influenced by the rightwing rhetoric? How fortunate that he didn't manage to be killed himself, thus preventing us from ever knowing the answers about motive, etc, etc.

Thanks for the blog, Jeff.

Very nicely written piece, Jeff.

Scott & Alex,

Thanks. I'm just trying to add one more sensible voice to what's being said.

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