by Bill Press
Nobody yet knows what drove 22-year old Jared Loughner to shoot Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and murder six of her constituents. The hours since that tragedy have been filled with endless speculation about his mental state, life history, political affiliations – and what this all means for the American body politic.
But it was the sheriff of Pima County who best summed up the event’s true meaning and linked it directly to today’s ugly political rhetoric. “The anger, the hatred, the bigotry that goes on in this country is getting to be outrageous,” Sheriff Clarence W. Dupnik told reporters, “and unfortunately Arizona has become sort of the capital.”
The rampage in Tucson should prompt the entire country to “do a little soul-searching,” said Dupnik. The fiery rhetoric that is now the norm in politics, he added, “may be free speech, but it’s not without consequences.” And now, once again, we see those tragic results.
Already, there are apologists who deny this shooting was in any way politically-motivated. They’re only fooling themselves. This attempted assassination has politics written all over it.
No matter why she was targeted, there’s no doubt Gabrielle Giffords was targeted because she was a member of Congress. Loughner didn’t choose a sports stadium or movie theatre for his murder spree. He went to a congressional meet-up. Upon arriving, he told organizers he wanted to talk to the Congresswoman, by name. Told he would have to wait his turn, he went back to his car, returned with a gun and walked right up to Giffords and shot her in the face. He then turned his gun indiscriminately on others.
Long before Saturday, Giffords was already the target of shameless rhetoric by her political opponents. Arizona’s Tea Party strongly opposed her in the November mid-terms over her support for President Obama’s health care reform legislation. Her Republican opponent, Jesse Kelly, held a campaign event under the banner: “Get on Target for Victory in November. Help Remove Gabrielle Giffords from office. Shoot a fully automatic M16 with Jesse Kelly.” The morning after she voted for the bill, the front door of her Tucson office was shattered by vandals.
Most famously, Gifford was one of 20 Democrats whom Sarah Palin featured on her website with crosshairs over their districts and the slogan: “Don’t retreat, instead – RELOAD!” It was a political statement that Giffords, herself a gun-rights advocate, found especially troubling. In what now appears an ominous premonition of Saturday’s shooting, she said at the time: “When people do that, they’ve got to realize there’s consequences to that.”
Only Jared Loughner knows whether he shot Gabrielle Giffords because she was a Democrat, because she voted for health care, because of some other issue, or just because she was part of the government he hated. But, as Sheriff Dupnik observed, he’s the direct product of some of the most hateful political rhetoric this country has ever seen.
With its fierce debates over immigration and health care, Arizona may be the Mecca of hate speech today. But it’s not alone. Toxic talk fills the airwaves nationwide – from politicians, candidates, pundits and, especially, from right-wing talk radio hosts. Michael Savage calls Dennis Kucinich a “whore.” Mike Huckabee says members of Congress should be “tarred and feathered.” Glenn Beck calls President Obama a “racist.” Sarah Palin singles out Gabrielle Giffords and urges voters to “reload.” Michelle Bachmann attacks our “gangster government.”
Those words were not intended to cause violence. But they have consequences. And violent rhetoric can, indeed, sometimes lead to violent actions. Because, as former President Bill Clinton pointed out when discussing lessons learned from the Oklahoma City bombing, violent words “go across space and they fall on the serious and the delirious alike. They fall on the connected and the unhinged alike.” Yes – on unhinged people like Jared Loughner.
While we pray for the recovery of Congresswoman Giffords, we also grieve for the families of those six people who lost their lives. None more tragically than 9-year old Christina Taylor Green. Born on September 11, 2001, she was just elected to her grade school’s student council. Knowing of her interest in politics, a neighbor invited Christina to come with her to meet her congresswoman. She was gunned down before she ever got the chance.
When overcharged, anti-government political rhetoric leads to that extreme, it’s time, indeed, for all Americans to “do a little soul-searching.”