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Arizona shootings: Must it take tragedy to wake up Washington?

The Arizona shooting tragedy over the weekend was an unspeakable horror, one that claimed the lives of 6 people and injured 14 others, including Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, who is fighting for her life and in critical condition after being shot in the head. But if there's any upside to this terrible event, it's that leaders in this country--whatever the killer's motivations might have been--are actually talking about the inflamed political rhetoric and heated discourse that has engulfed the country in recent years.

That it took the near-death of a Congresswoman and the loss of six other lives (including a nine-year-old child) to get the discussion going, however, is the travesty of leadership here. Anyone even remotely aware of the state of politics in this country has watched elected officials--and many in the media who cover them--fan the flames of angry invective, engaging in rhetoric most people would not use themselves, much less expect their leaders to use.

In case you've missed the retelling of such angry commentary in the news since the tragedy, here's a few examples. Republican Rep. Michelle Bachmann encouraged her constituents to be "armed and dangerous" over the energy tax debate. Sarah Palin has, of course, famously tweeted her followers not to "retreat, Instead, RELOAD!" Even Obama got in on the act during his campaign for president, talking about bringing a gun to a knife fight as figurative speech at a campaign fundraiser.

But on the day after the shootings, many politicians were suddenly renouncing the incivility and rancor that has grown worse in recent years. Consider Speaker of the House John Boehner, who reportedly said in March 2010 that pro-life Democrat Steve Driehaus may be a figurative "dead man" for voting for the health-care overhaul. "He can't go home to the west side of Cincinnati," he told The National Review Online. "The Catholics will run him out of town." On Sunday he said it is "critical that we stand together at this dark time as one body," and that "this is a time for the House to lock arms."

Similar calls for unity and civility have come from both sides of the aisle. Tennessee Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander said in an interview, "We ought to cool it, tone it down." Meanwhile, House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) cautioned that "what we say can, in fact, have consequences."

What's interesting about all this discussion on angry political rhetoric is that it's not at all clear what specifically motivated the suspect. Jared Loughner, against whom federal prosecutors filed charges Sunday, is clearly a disturbed young man. He left a community college for repeated conduct violations and disruptions that involved campus police. He posted a series of Internet missives and videos making strange statements on topics such as mind control and the gold standard. Evidence points to a premeditated assassination plan. But while friends say he railed against the government, the evidence so far does not appear to point explicitly to current angry political rhetoric.

I understand why this is happening. Whether or not the heated talk that has pervaded Washington specifically prompted the suspected shooter to do anything, it creates a climate that could cause others who are similarly unstable to do the same and may have contributed to his alleged actions. In addition, it is natural for people not to correct difficult problems or take on complex solutions until unfortunate circumstances force their hands.

But the fact that six people had to die before officials got serious about toning down the vitriol makes a mockery of this thing we call leadership. Real leaders would have stepped forward before this tragedy occurred, making it a priority to calm the discourse before things got out of hand. The ultimate irony, of course, is that Gabrielle Giffords was just that kind of leader. "Our democracy is a light, a beacon, really, around the world because we affect change at the ballot box and not because of these outbursts of violence," Giffords told MSNBC in March in a now eerily prescient interview. "People really need to realize that the rhetoric and firing people up ... when people do that they need to realize there's consequences to that action."

By Jena McGregor

 |  January 10, 2011; 10:05 AM ET |  Category:  Bad leadership , Crisis leadership , Federal government leadership , Government leadership , Presidential leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
Previous: How Daley will help Obama | Next: Sheriff Dupnik, first on rhetoric now on gun control: Speaking his mind or overstepping his bounds?


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Oh please, if a mere mass shooting was enough to get this country to ban guns, we would would have stopped decades ago.

The NRA will rail against this non-stop, blinded by their limitless arrogance,
more people will die, and nothing will change,

The fact that a nine year girl was murdered randomly and and yet to be buried will mean nothing to these socio-pathic gun nuts.
People like ALANCE are already whining about constitutional rights to carry guns.

Nothing will change, and we will continue to have the highest level of gun violence in the western world.

Posted by: Iupur | January 12, 2011 6:33 AM

The Washington reaction is: Never let a good tragedy go to waste. This is a golden opportunity to further America's polarization by exploitation of your political enemies with an orgasmic media pointing fingers in all directions.

Let's attack free speech and push for total gun control. Ezra Klein thinks the Constitution is worthless - written over 100 years ago, you know. If you support the Constitution you are a Tea Party nut. Freedom is just another word...

Posted by: alance | January 11, 2011 11:23 PM

I doubt this guy was a Fox News viewer, or ever checked out Sarah Palin's website. From what the EVIDENCE is showing, he probably had The Ed Show on his DVR...

Posted by: akwa01 | January 11, 2011 10:39 PM

"In brief, Obama is the most dangerous demagogue EVER to surface on the American political scene."

Aaaaand....some of us have learned nothing from the cold-blooded murder of six.

"And specially the Sheriff in this County who jumped into political statements rather than performing his job to look at the facts. He should be soundly reprimanded for his incendiary remarks."

What was "incendiary" about what he said? He didn't name names or point to any one side. Do you have a guilty conscience--is that why you assume he was referring to the conservative extremists? Why is it okay to use violent imagery and egg on the whackos, but as soon as you're called on it, the Tea Partiers and the Palinists complain about how they're being unfairly targeted? If you can't take it, then don't dish it out. Oh I forgot--THEY'RE the real victims. As Hudson Phillips made sure to remind us in his very first statement after the murders--no less than half of it was whining about how "the left" was going to "blame them." HALF the statement.

Hey, if the extreme left had made violent rhetoric a common, accepted tactic, that is certainly up for criticism as well. But by and large, they haven't. We know this is true. Back in the early '70s, YES--the Weather Underground were just as bad, just as criminal in their use of irresponsible protest rhetoric. But they're not around any more. I can think of a few examples since then--a couple of jerk professors like Ward "I'm not Really a Native American, I Just Pretend to Be One for Political Capital" and Nicholas de Genova. But by and large, the extreme left doesn't have the platform that the extreme right does nowadays. Man up, own that you played a part in the charged atmosphere, and let's figure out, AS AMERICANS, what we can do to restore civility.

Posted by: NYC123 | January 11, 2011 7:13 PM

It doesn't matter what motivated the shooter. It took this terrible event to make people realize how inappropriate it is to using physically threatening language against your fellow citizen.

Posted by: MHawke | January 11, 2011 2:56 PM

Tragedy why I started Lord Westover blog.
My blog, Lord Westover and the Nobility Oath, was recently a finalist in your newspapers "favorite tweeps" contest, but in the end didn't win. The concept of the blog was born out of my personal frustration with the growing incivility so prevalent in our society today. Lord Westover, my performance art character, lives by the conviction that all men and women have a noble essence deep inside them even though they are more than often unaware of this hidden attribute.

Lord Westover feels the only possible solution to the deplorable lack of respect among differing ideologies in the national psyche is to treat one another with the graciousness of the nobility while actually respecting those of opposing interests and opinions even if you adamantly disagree.

The prime component of his solution is the administering of the Nobility Oath. To this end, Lord Westover hopes to create a unique nouveau nobility that will enlighten the understanding of the troglodyte and usher in a new era of civility for the American republic.

Perhaps Lord Westover's blog should have won the contest afterall. Visit His Graces’ blog at: www.lordwestover.blogspot.com

Posted by: archawaii | January 10, 2011 4:31 PM

Jena McGregor, you show yourself as a journalist with such an agenda that not only do you take a story that is already out there and try turn it into your own, but you step right behind all the other very opinionated "journalists" who swing a story to show what they want it to look like instead of what it is. I don't remember you, nor anyone else for that matter, making any claims that Al Gore or the environmental groups were responsible when some crazed maniac with a pistol held an entire floor of the Discovery Channel building hostage. I also do not remember you, nor anyone else on the Washington Post staff, claiming that the President was inciting anger when he called his opposition "enemies," a phrase people barely use on the Taliban. I must have also been deaf at the time, because I did not hear anyone on the Washington Post staff trying to "tone down the vitriol" when people were saying even worse things about President George Bush, himself, much less the entire GOP.

The truth is this, this man was after Rep Giffords long before the Tea Party came about or even President Obama's election for that matter. It is now known that he has been after her since 2007, so should we cry out about the horrible vitriol that poisoned American politics during the Bush era? No. Just as McVeigh in OKC, this man was deranged and ill and was looking for a reason to do harm to Rep Giffords.

If anything, I would expect you to start a response column titled "How much longer will Marx and Hitler continue to have an effect on our society?" But I'm sure that doesn't mesh your political desires.

Posted by: Ibn_Meno | January 10, 2011 3:30 PM

This tragedy is terrible just as the 13 people killed at Fort Hood were tragic deaths - but there is a world of difference in the reactions.

In this case the killer must have been political and pushed by the big bad right (all non liberals put instantly in the same "blood on your hands" basket) in the latter it was just a madman and noone should blame all those who believe in Islam as he did for his actions.... (which I agree with)

In this case, Obama reacted immediately, which is the only right thing to do. In the latter, he finished his day long meeting and happy shout outs before even speaking of the dead - even if he was their commander in chief.

If the laws protect the privacy of madmen so they can buy arms - it is not the arms themselves that are to blame.

The VA Tech shooter's familly begged for help but the young man could not be treated without his agreement thanks to "progressive laws and thinkers" - how many died?

We need to seriously look at how our judgements are influenced by ideology and how we can protect people from themselves by treating them.

Posted by: sally62 | January 10, 2011 2:56 PM

It's business as usual for some of these right-wing extremists that write into this column. Instead of some introspection on their part, it's all about how we have a president who is "an intruder", "a Marxist", "ACORN", blah blah blah. Politics as usual for the conspiracy theorists om the hard right; no lessons learned. But then again, why would we ever expect the delusions of these hard-core Obama haters to change on bit? People like that aren't susceptibe to reason and empirical evidence.

Posted by: englishl | January 10, 2011 2:23 PM

I see the comments are pretty much as I expected: lots of attempts to evade responsibility, especially from the Tea Party sympathizers.

But the attempts fail. Sure, we know Loughner was nuts, but the truth is that he found encouragement in acting out his nuttiness in this violent way in the criminal rhetoric of the Right. Beck, Sarah Angle, O'Reilly and others should have been arrested long ago for incitement to murder. Maybe now that the murder has happened the prosecutors can go ahead and do it.

Another big truth everyone seems to be avoiding: when the Founding Fathers saw the need for an armed public to cow the government into humility, they did not endorse allowing obvious lunatics to have high powered weapons. We need to show some common sense in the interpretation of the 2nd Amendment -- something clearly lacking in both the interpretations of the Left and those of the Right.

Posted by: Syllogizer | January 10, 2011 2:13 PM

Vitriol is only a small aspect of this attack. GUNS and MENTAL ILLNESS are the other two much more difficult issues that cry out for attention but from which politicians shrink. The pols and interested parties will continue to wring their hands and have moments of silence while Americans get gunned down all around them.

Posted by: Renaissancewoman | January 10, 2011 1:59 PM

Would the author please describe why it is (apparently) concluded that "inflamed political rhetoric" has any relationship with the shooting? The author acknowledges "it's not at all clear what specifically motivated the suspect". From what I read, the shooter was likely motivated by a personal grudge . He is reported as being fixated about a slight at a similar 2007 event which was amplified by his emotional problems. Has the author just completed a creative writing course? Otherwise, why put the seemingly separate subjects in the same article?

Posted by: wjtalbot | January 10, 2011 1:26 PM

Barack Obama has an extensive and well documented history of employing inflamatory language to denigrate his political opposition and incite his fanatical base, such as ACORN, to action.
Obama was extremely well schooled and practiced in these incendiary techniques in his career as a Community Agitator under the tutuledge of his fanatical Marxist mentor, Saul Alinsky. Techniques that are enshrined in Obama's virtual 'Bible", "Rules For Radicals", as authored by Alinsky.
For Obama, in reaction to the Tucson tragedy, to now presume to lecture others from his teleprompter script on the need for 'Civil Discourse' is a flagrant insult to the intelligence of all thinking Americans.
In brief, Obama is the most dangerous demagogue EVER to surface on the American political scene. Unfortunately, we have unwittingly elevated to the Presidency of the United States, an arrogantly pompous intruder who neither professes, NOR has the capacity, NOR the inclination to comprehend the dictum of our Founding Fathers. Greg Neubeck

Posted by: gneubeck | January 10, 2011 1:18 PM

Republican Rep. Michelle Bachmann encouraged her constituents to be "armed and dangerous" over the energy tax debate. Sarah Palin has, of course, famously tweeted her followers not to "retreat, Instead, RELOAD!"


Posted by: OneWhoSpeaksTruth | January 10, 2011 1:14 PM

I was in high school when Sirhan Sirhan assassinated Robert Kennedy. There was an immediate outcry against television violence. That lasted about two years, before the cop shows and the lone detective clones got beaten and shot (although never seriously) on a regular basis.

If this shooting causes the nation to reflect on what it has become and what it wants to be – then those people (including a nine year old) have not died in vain. However, I suspect the Palins and Becks and Limbaughs will just find excuses for their language and behavior, aided and abetted by the talking-head media and the vitriol will be spewing again.

Posted by: shadowmagician | January 10, 2011 1:08 PM

The Washington Post, USA Today, Fox News Corp and others have rammed Palin, Beck, Bachmann and the Tea Party down our throats almost every day since 2008. Their vitriol comes at us unfiltered and unvetted. No fact checking. Is it any wonder that these terrorists and traitors have become way more powerful than is their due? Is it any wonder that mentally unbalanced thinking now holds sway in the U.S.? Why the surprise and shock now?

Posted by: shapiromarilyn | January 10, 2011 12:44 PM

The irony is that what it's going to take to tone this down is a few lawsuits, and then people will find out that talking about someone as "a dead man" or "targeting" them isn't going to be seen as protected speech by a court of law.

Posted by: tokenwhitemale | January 10, 2011 12:41 PM

That so many Americans calmly accept or tolerate the ubiquitous handguns in almost all forums of daily life, from church to school, says something about how the aggressive and immoral among us can intimidate the larger society. Even members of the National Rifle Association who deplore violence against other humans are afraid to break away from powerful leadership. We are becoming a nation of wimps and savages.

Posted by: paulco | January 10, 2011 12:31 PM

I'm already tired of this story.

Posted by: fishcrow | January 10, 2011 12:30 PM

Foxtrot 1:

I strongly disagree with your comments. The Tea Party and Sarah Palin ARE NOT the offenders. What is it that they have done that is offensive? The Tea Party is represented by a great number of average americans that frankly had enough of the abuses done by the Liberal agenda and came forward to protest, within their rights. Evidently this has been a shocker for you liberals because Conservatives were not in the business of doing that. But when these abuses touch areas like our values and freedoms and we see the transformation intended on our society, there is a line that was crossed. And that is what you cannot stomach. If you study our history since our Revolution you will see that it shows that we have engaged in vigorous protests and debates. But the beauty of our democratic process is our freedom to choose and vote and change powers non-violently. So, I refuse to see that these ploys by you liberals are going to tie our hands.

The shooting was a vile act by a demented individual and we will together mourn those lost and feel for all affected. But we need to see this as NON POLITICAL act of violence. We must reflect on it and then encourage both parties to continue their tasks as vigorously as it needs to be.

Let's not be afraid! We must preserve our liberties!

Posted by: Hispana | January 10, 2011 12:18 PM

McGregor: Where the hell were all you liberal hypocrites when the hate was directed at Mr. Bush?
You are disgusting. Crawl back under your rock.

Posted by: LarryG62 | January 10, 2011 12:14 PM

Words of wisdom to the author of this article:

Look and study our history and you will realize that most of our violent acts have been promoted by liberal fashions in this country.

You have injected blame on the political discourse and specially conservatives and this only shows your ignorance.

This shooter was motivated by a twisted desire to become relevant at any cost and he used this Congresswoman as his avenue.

The beauty of our country is our freedom of speech and our ability to disagree in a boisterous way and resolve our problems with our ability to freely choose. It is quite funny to see that Liberals in this country feel that they are the only ones that can disrupt and protest. Learn to accept that in November the majority of americans gave you liberals a sound trashing and now you must swallow the consequences. And trying to stop the Conservative agenda with your bias is not going to work.

My respects to all of those affected by this evil act. But we must continue our path. And that is the beauty of the liberties we have enjoyed since our Declaration of Independence and Constitution. Freedom for all!

Posted by: Hispana | January 10, 2011 12:04 PM

If you really look at it honestly without trying to be politically correct, Sarah Palin and the Tea Party are the offenders. Before Saturday's sad event, anyone who asked them to tone it down, got mocked and taunted--forever. In the wake of Saturday's tragedy, things changed. Right now Palin and the Tea Party have their hands tied. Congress and the rest of society can discuss toning down violent rhetoric without fear of retaliation. If Palin or the Tea Party comes back with their usual mocking and taunting, they risk looking like absolute monsters. The issue can be brought into the open due to the sympathy people feel for the victims, although it seems clear that the crime had nothing to do with the Tea Party or Sarah Palin. Out of the tragedy has come an opportunity to address something that people were afraid to talk about for fear of public retaliation.

Posted by: foxtrot1 | January 10, 2011 12:03 PM

What I find truly remarkable is how the LIBERALS ran to point fingers and make accusations at Conservatives using this unfortunate incident as political ploys. And specially this so called journalist naming only conservatives. Watching MSNBC and CNN nauseated me. And specially the Sheriff in this County who jumped into political statements rather than performing his job to look at the facts. He should be soundly reprimanded for his incendiary remarks. But it is backfiring on all of these sources.

My prayers are with all of the affected families. This was simply the act of an evil deranged individual and unfortunately we have too many of these in our society. We need to take a serious look at the responsibilities of gun licensing and institutions coming forward when individuals like this are clearly demonstrating signs of severe mental problems. The shooter had a distinct path. Where has his family been? Why didn't they intervened? We need to stop being too afraid and act when we need to.

And I applaud John Boehner for his leadership this week and we must go forward with the planned agenda for this 112 Congress.

Posted by: Hispana | January 10, 2011 11:50 AM

Before we get carried away with this whole "rhetoric" thing, let's lok at this situation from two perspectives.

First, there is zero evidence that "rhetoric," heated or otherwise, contributed to this "schizophrenic's" (NYT description) shooting of Congresswoman Giffords (with whom he was obsessed since 2007, before Sarah Palin and the political campaign). The shooter was called "left-wing, quite liberal" by a high school classmate, others called him "reclusive" and "increasingly alienated," and Pima College called in his parents and told them he could not return to college until he got a mental evaluation. Yet we have this columnist blaming this shooting--with no facts to support it--on political rhetoric.

Then secondly, this columnist has also decided that, for the most part, the inflammatory political rhetoric is pretty much coming from the right. Harsh political rhetoric has been a staple of this republic and of democratic governments since they were formed--it is essential that we have freedom of speech. But if this writer wishes to focus on harsh rhetoric, for whatever reason, let's review some of the statements made by Barack Obama as copied from Human Events magazine:

If they bring a knife to the fight, we bring a gun. – June 2008.

I want you to go out and talk to your neighbors… I want you to argue with them, get in their faces. – September 2008.

I don’t want to quell anger. I think people are right to be angry. I’m angry. – March 2009.

If Latinos sit out the election instead of saying, “We’re gonna punish our enemies and we’re gonna reward our friends who stand with us on issues that are important to us,” if they don’t see that kind of upsurge in voting in this election, then I think it’s gonna be harder, and that’s why I think it’s so important that people focus on November 2. – October 2010.

"The Climate of Krugman"

Posted by: SherlockHolmes | January 10, 2011 11:38 AM

I found it remarkable that John Boner, "Weeper of the House", who has appeared on tv crying and blowing his nose numerous times in the past few weeks, did NOT cry during his remarks on tv about the attempted assassination of Rep. Giffords. Five people died during that attack, and many others were critically wounded.

Boner said Giffords was his friend, maybe if she had been a Republican Boner would have cried! So much for Boner's "compassionate" heart!

Posted by: cashmere1 | January 10, 2011 11:20 AM

When hatred and open intrasigence against the democratic process is being welded by a major political party as a tactic to inflame their fringe elements, such as what has been occuring with the GOP over the last year and a half, NO amount of belated breast beating on the part of their parties leadership or media mouthpieces will change their culpability when the whirlwind is finally reaped. Shame on the GOP and shame on all the rest of us if we as a nation continue to enable such behavior in a democracy.


Posted by: birddog2012 | January 10, 2011 11:02 AM

Unfortunately, there will be little change that will reduce the risk of an event like this from occurring again in the future. We have to recognize that as a society we are willing for these events to occur. We are not willing to put into place procedures/regulations that would have a real chance of stopping these types of events.

What concrete changes have been put into place since the Virginia Tech shootings? This event has an eerily similar background. A disturbed young man whose mental stability was questioned. But he was still able to purchase a semi-automatic or fully automatic weapon and wreck havoc on many innocent people.

Yes, there is a database that states are suppose to submit names of people with mental problems that should not be able to purchase guns. But the NRA made sure it was voluntary by the states. Did Arizona have this person's name and did they forward it to the database?

Much like the Virginia Tech shootings, there will be an initial uproar but any meaningful change will be stonewalled or watered down to be ineffective by the pro-gun lobby.

We have to admit that we are willing for these horrible events to occur because we are not willing to take effective steps to prevent them.

Posted by: cmpgm | January 10, 2011 10:55 AM

Like many of the recent shooters I doubt we will get a clear picture of a right or left American from this guy. Marx and Hitler were his reading materials and neither have anything to do with the American left or right.

Posted by: flonzy1 | January 10, 2011 10:28 AM

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