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."
January 10, 2011; 10:05 AM ET |
Federal government leadership
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