Monday, January 10, 2011

Don't use the actions of a madman to try to short-circuit political debate

There is something particularly evil about aiming to kill an elected representative who was in the midst of performing her duty of meeting with her constituents. That is a blow aimed not only at the victim, but at our very representative democracy. To aim indiscriminately to kill those with the congresswoman as well as those who came to hear her intensifies that evil. The fact that one victim was a child who was there because of her interest in the public affairs seems especially heartbreaking.

We can all agree that this is evil.

Those who seek to gain some sort of political or ideological advantage by blaming the actions of a single vicious lunatic is despicable. We've seen this before - at the Oklahoma City bombing and it was contemptible then. Nothing has changed. People have been using military rhetoric for politics for a long time. People have criticized government and politicians since our country began. The actions of a crazed and evil individual were his choices, and the blame on him should not be diluted by trying to cast blame on conservatives and vitriolic rhetoric.

Just in case you're inclined to buy into Paul Krugman's desperate attempt to somehow cast these terrible events as the fault of conservatives opposing the Democratic agenda, read John Hayward's takedown of Krugman.
Ah, so this whole “democracy” thing is just too dangerous for us benighted rubes, eh? Political opposition to the sainted Left is inherently illegitimate, and should be swept away. Let us pause to note that this is one of many times in his essay that Krugman demonstrates his near-complete ignorance of actual news, and conveys the sense he can’t be bothered with Google searches. If he had tried one before humiliating the Times with this op-ed, he would know that Jared Loughner, the Tucscon shooter, has been obsessed with Giffords since at least 2007, long before there were any McCain-Palin rallies.

Krugman throws out some vague allegations about “a rising tide of threats and vandalism aimed at elected officials.” Then he concedes “the shooter in Arizona appears to have been mentally troubled,” BUT “that doesn’t mean his act can or should be treated as an isolated event, having nothing to do with the national climate.” Actually, yes, that’s exactly what it does mean.
Krugman's argument is an attempt to limit political debate by casting opposition to the left. In his view, opposing the leftist agenda is illegitimate and he will use any opportunity to further that message.

And we're already seeing Democratic politicians efforts to jump on this story and use it to try to end any debate over their actions and discredit their opponents.
One veteran Democratic operative, who blames overheated rhetoric for the shooting, said President Barack Obama should carefully but forcefully do what his predecessor did.

“They need to deftly pin this on the tea partiers,” said the Democrat. “Just like the Clinton White House deftly pinned the Oklahoma City bombing on the militia and anti-government people.”

Another Democratic strategist said the similarity is that Tucson and Oklahoma City both “take place in a climate of bitter and virulent rhetoric against the government and Democrats.”

This Democrat said that the time had come to insist that Republicans stand up when, for example, a figure such as Fox News commentator Glenn Beck says something incendiary.
Why should political strategists be able to use the anonymity of Politico's reporting to forward their plan to exploit murder?

Jumping into this dark pool of political finger-painting so quickly before facts come out is particularly ill-advised especially now that, as we learn more about the murderer, it is clear that he was not a man of the right, but actually the left. But that doesn't make the rhetoric of the left to blame for his actions. As Ross Douhat writes in the same paper that publishes Krugman's ill-judged rant, as a nation we are united in our horror at the shooting.
But if overheated rhetoric and martial imagery really led inexorably to murder, then both parties would belong in the dock. (It took conservative bloggers about five minutes to come up with Democratic campaign materials that employed targets and crosshairs against Republican politicians.) When our politicians and media loudmouths act like fools and zealots, they should be held responsible for being fools and zealots. They shouldn’t be held responsible for the darkness that always waits to swallow up the unstable and the lost.

We should remember, too, that there are places where mainstream political movements really are responsible for violence against their rivals. (Last week’s assassination of a Pakistani politician who dared to defend a Christian is a stark reminder of what that sort of world can look like.) Not so in America: From the Republican leadership to the Tea Party grass roots, all of Gabrielle Giffords’s political opponents were united in horror at the weekend’s events. There is no faction in American politics that actually wants its opponents dead.

That may seem like a small blessing, amid so much tragedy and loss. But it is a blessing worth remembering nonetheless.
As Stephen Hayes writes,
Sometimes a crazy guy is just a crazy guy. And sometimes a tragedy is just a tragedy.
And Byron York went to work to highlight the contrast between those who demanded we wait after the Fort Hood shooting before casting blame at Islamist violence with those very same people in the media and politics rushing to blame the tone of the political debate today and cast blame on Sarah Palin.

These efforts to short-circuit political debate are the wrong response. Our system is built on debate over political choices made by our elected officials. Jack Schafer does a great job of responding to the words of Sheriff Clarence Dupnik blaming the murders on vitriolic rhetoric, words that he uttered before we had any evidence on the shooter's background or thoughts. Is that really how we want a sheriff to approach a criminal investigation? This is not the time for us to quiet political debate because of fears that some lunatic out there will decide to shoot a politician meeting with constituents. Lunatics are lunatics and it's very difficult to tease out some explanation from a guy who read The Communist Manifesto, Mein Kampf, and Ayn Rand. If our system of freedom of speech means anything, it should mean that politicians and the media don't jump on these terrible events to try to shut down debate and police language. Shafer writes,
For as long as I've been alive, crosshairs and bull's-eyes have been an accepted part of the graphical lexicon when it comes to political debates. Such "inflammatory" words as targeting, attacking, destroying, blasting, crushing, burying, knee-capping, and others have similarly guided political thought and action. Not once have the use of these images or words tempted me or anybody else I know to kill. I've listened to, read—and even written!—vicious attacks on government without reaching for my gun. I've even gotten angry, for goodness' sake, without coming close to assassinating a politician or a judge.

From what I can tell, I'm not an outlier. Only the tiniest handful of people—most of whom are already behind bars, in psychiatric institutions, or on psycho-meds—can be driven to kill by political whispers or shouts. Asking us to forever hold our tongues lest we awake their deeper demons infantilizes and neuters us and makes politicians no safer.

The call by Sheriff Dupnik and others to take our political conversation down a few notches might make sense if anybody had been calling for the assassination in the first place, which they hadn't. And if they had, there are effective laws to prosecute those who move language outside of the metaphorical. I can't be overly critical of the sheriff. After all, he's the one who has spent his career witnessing how threats can turn into violence: gang wars, contract killings, neighborhood rows, domestic disputes, bar arguments, and all the rest.

The great miracle of American politics is that although it can tend toward the cutthroat and thuggish, it is almost devoid of genuine violence outside of a few scuffles and busted lips now and again. With the exception of Saturday's slaughter, I'd wager that in the last 30 years there have been more acts of physical violence in the stands at Philadelphia Eagles home games than in American politics.

Any call to cool "inflammatory" speech is a call to police all speech, and I can't think of anybody in government, politics, business, or the press that I would trust with that power. As Jonathan Rauch wrote brilliantly in Harper's in 1995, "The vocabulary of hate is potentially as rich as your dictionary, and all you do by banning language used by cretins is to let them decide what the rest of us may say." Rauch added, "Trap the racists and anti-Semites, and you lay a trap for me too. Hunt for them with eradication in your mind, and you have brought dissent itself within your sights."

Our spirited political discourse, complete with name-calling, vilification—and, yes, violent imagery—is a good thing. Better that angry people unload their fury in public than let it fester and turn septic in private. The wicked direction the American debate often takes is not a sign of danger but of freedom. And I'll punch out the lights of anybody who tries to take it away from me.

Glenn Reynolds writes in today's WSJ along similar lines and calling out those who seek to create political advantage from the shooting in Tuscon.
So as the usual talking heads begin their "have you no decency?" routine aimed at talk radio and Republican politicians, perhaps we should turn the question around. Where is the decency in blood libel?

To paraphrase Justice Cardozo ("proof of negligence in the air, so to speak, will not do"), there is no such thing as responsibility in the air. Those who try to connect Sarah Palin and other political figures with whom they disagree to the shootings in Arizona use attacks on "rhetoric" and a "climate of hate" to obscure their own dishonesty in trying to imply responsibility where none exists. But the dishonesty remains.

To be clear, if you're using this event to criticize the "rhetoric" of Mrs. Palin or others with whom you disagree, then you're either: (a) asserting a connection between the "rhetoric" and the shooting, which based on evidence to date would be what we call a vicious lie; or (b) you're not, in which case you're just seizing on a tragedy to try to score unrelated political points, which is contemptible. Which is it?

I understand the desperation that Democrats must feel after taking a historic beating in the midterm elections and seeing the popularity of ObamaCare plummet while voters flee the party in droves. But those who purport to care about the health of our political community demonstrate precious little actual concern for America's political well-being when they seize on any pretext, however flimsy, to call their political opponents accomplices to murder.

Where is the decency in that?
The WSJ editorial page expands on this message.
Ponder the implication of this. A deranged soul shoots a public figure and we are supposed to change our political discourse and rule certain people and opinions out of bounds based on whatever incoherent ramblings Mr. Loughner published on his website?

Every two years we hold elections so that sane Americans can make a judgment on the policies of President Obama, John Boehner, tea party candidates and so on. But even though the people have recently had their say, in a typically raucous but entirely nonviolent fashion, we are supposed to put that aside and assess what a murderer with a mental illness has to tell us about the state of American politics, government and our national dialogue.

This line of argument is itself an attack on democratic discourse, and it is amazing that it even needs to be rebutted. Taking such an argument seriously will only encourage more crazy people to believe they can trigger a national soul-searching if they shoot at a political target. We should denounce the murders and the murderer, rather than doing him the honor of suggesting that his violence flows in any explainable fashion from democratic debate.

President Obama does have an opportunity here, but it is not to link—"deftly" or otherwise—his political opponents to Mr. Loughner. This would only further poison and polarize our public debate. Mr. Obama can lift the level of public discourse by explaining the reality of Mr. Loughner's illness and calling out those on the right and left who want to blame the other side for murder. That would be a genuinely Presidential act of leadership, and it would have the added advantage of being honest about the murders in Tucson.
UPDATE: And for those who want to blame Sarah Palin's rhetoric and website, were they also as upset by Democrats using images of targets and bulls-eyes? John Hinderaker reminds us of such Democratic imagery. Were these same hand-wringers upset by the kind of rhetoric used against George Bush?Paul Mirengoff contributes,
We can all wish for more reasoned discourse, just as we can all wish for milder weather. But complaining about the nation's discourse is probably a waste of time except as a method of attempting to advance the interests of a particular faction. And that itself can be viewed as an example of unreasonable discourse.