The Vitriol Will Likely Return

With any disturbing event, like the tragic and horrifying shooting in Tucson last Saturday, there is a natural tendency to extrapolate the impact of it for months or even years to come. The unspeakable event cost people from such varying walks of life as a 9-year-old girl and a federal judge their lives and has left Rep.Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., fighting for her life. Something like this creates a memory that is certain to be burned into the consciousness of current and former elected officials and their staffs, not to mention anyone who watches news events on even a casual basis.

Anyone who has ever worked for a public official or on a campaign must have thought, "There but for the grace of God go I." The decision by House leaders to put off substantive legislation for this week was a good one, and allows members and their staffs to digest what has happened. This is no time for a divisive fight.


There is much that should be remembered and considered coming from this event. But expectations that this will shift the momentum of the gun control debate, or hopes that this will have a long-term impact on the increasing coarseness in our political dialogue, are certain to be dashed.

Gun control has replaced Social Security as the third rail in American politics. Social Security is much more likely to be reformed and modified than gun laws.  Any Republican who supported such a move would be guaranteed a primary challenge, and just about any swing-district incumbent daring to go there could well expect a wrath worse than if long-term changes were made to the retirement plan. Don't hold your breath waiting for this awful event to change the sentiment in Congress or in state legislatures about guns.

Similarly, those who expect the Arizona shootings to have a long-term impact on the vitriolic rhetoric that we have heard from both sides in recent years are sure to be disappointed. Those on one end of the spectrum will say their attacks are just expressions of passion and commitment, and that the venom only comes from those with opposite points of view.

There will be hundreds of events and developments -- unemployment reports, congressional debates and votes, ill-advised remarks, wars in Afghanistan and Iraq -- in which the tone of debate will grow to a boiling point. Even events as momentous as this tragedy usually diminish over time, overtaken or overshadowed by subsequent events.  But the shock, the pain, and the loss will be long remembered.

Many are already arguing that this shooting, clearly targeting Giffords, is an extension of the anger expressed in the town hall meetings of the summer of 2009. They argue that it's the inevitable byproduct of what used to be civil political discourse run amok; that those with contrary points of view are evil or not real Americans, and that simple disagreement over issues and ideology is now passé among so many.

But even a casual look at the apparent shooter, Jared Lee Loughner, reveals that he is not a tea party member, or for that matter a Republican or conservative activist.

Watching the three YouTube videos that Loughner put on the Web in recent months reveals a very sick young man, one with clear delusions. His Facebook page, now taken down, indicated that his favorite books ranged from "The Communist Manifesto" by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels on the far left to Adolph Hitler's "Mein Kampf" on the far right; from Ayn Rand's "We the Living" on the libertarian side to "The Old Man and the Sea," "To Kill a Mockingbird," and "The Wizard of Oz" in between. His talk of "mind control" and discussion of politics was more the nonsense of someone who wears tinfoil rather than tricornered hats. This was simply an upper-middle-class kid with significant mental problems acting out his delusions.

With diminishing funding for mental health programs and hospitals, and a legal system that makes involuntary institutionalization extremely difficult, we're lucky that these kinds of events don't happen more often.

At the same time, when the level of political debate in this country drops to the levels that we have seen in recent years, it can't help but create an environment in which unstable people decide that they can attack elected officials for the common good. Nothing good comes from rhetoric so over-the-top that it encourages the view that elected officials on the opposite side of the aisle are evil and a danger to the country.

It is ironic that Giffords's event was part of a series of "Congress on Your Corner" exchanges with constituents. We'll now likely see more reluctance on the part of elected officials to have open events, which will of course have the inevitable affect of creating even more distance between them and voters. We will also likely see more security personnel hired to protect members, something that shouldn't have to happen but inevitably will.

About 15 years ago, some focus groups found that many, if not most, voters mistakenly believe that all members of Congress live in mansions with butlers and huge chandeliers and ride around in chauffeur-driven limousines with bodyguards always around them. Members aren't going to be getting the mansions or butlers, but bodyguards for many are sure to follow.

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Charlie Cook is editor and publisher of The Cook Political Report and a political analyst for National Journal.

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