A 'No Regrets' Response to the Tucson Shootings

By James Fallows

From a friend who has worked in and around politics for decades:

>>It's true, of course, that the causal link, if any, between the heat of political rhetoric and violence against public officials is impossible to know with certainty.  You and the Tea Partiers are correct to point that out. 

But isn't a "no regrets" approach warranted nonetheless?  If the heat of political rhetoric can be toned down, it is at least possible that some violence may be averted.  (Intuition and history both suggest that incitement can play a role in provoking violence by individuals against other individuals; early 1930s Germany provides an obvious example, even though there, too, the actual perpetrators of violence may in some sense have been "deranged" or sociopaths to begin with.) 

Here in the U.S., even if no violence is averted - something we probably can't know in any event - the cooling down of political rhetoric, a little more respect and civility in public discourse, may have independent value and is not something we are likely as a nation to regret.  I think that's a stronger argument to make to today's hotheads of rhetoric than the argument that their heated rhetoric has or necessarily will "cause" violence - a proposition they will naturally (and within a few days or weeks, vociferously) resist.<<

After the jump, a complementary response about civil discourse. Before that, I will note that several historians of late 19th century America have written in to quibble with my assertion that the assassinations of James Garfield and William McKinley were not directly connected to the "main" political issues of the day. For instance, from one professor:

>>Charles Guiteau [the killer of Garfield] was a paranoid schizophrenic, inflamed by the background political noise of the period, which was the hyper-patriotism of the Stalwart protectionist wing of the GOP. Though often called a "deranged office seeker," Guiteau was motivated less by the desire for a consulship than by his conviction that Garfield (a member of the party's "Half-Breed" reform wing) had betrayed the nation by appointing a free trader to the NY Customhouse. His publically stated goal was to replace the president with Chester Arthur, an arch-Stalwart....
 
If early reports about the guy who shot Giffords are correct, he was very similar to Guiteau: a mentally ill person, with fervent but relatively recent political convictions, whose consumption of overheated rhetoric led him to a violent act.<< 

FYI. Another reaction after the jump.

On "graduate level citizenship," a reader writes:

>>This atrocity has crystallized something for me that I've been trying to articulate over that last several years:  when did it become acceptable to say the inflammatory and thugish things that Rush, O'Reilly, a host of Fox commenters, and so many politicians ("lock and load!") have been saying?  Not that long ago a societal sense of propriety seemed to keep these kinds of comments out of the mainstream.  Perhaps it's the lost lock that the big three networks had on TV news; perhaps it's the internet; perhaps it's a backlash from the feminism of the 80's and 90's, where anything can now be said, no matter the consequences;  free speech = appropriate speech. But whatever it is, it's destroying a structural fabric that's important to this country.

America is graduate level citizenship. It requires an advanced level of attention and maturity.  We are committed to share this country with people of opposite persuasions and to resolve our differences through political struggle and not violence, all the while accepting, respecting, and even honoring our foes as Americans.  Our foes keep us honest; our foes move us down the road toward wisdom.  America is, by definition, imperfect, because it is the never ending quest for the "more perfect union"; a union of foes.

Individual Americans are, more than we like to admit, followers and lemmings. Our leaders shape the public's response:  The public response to Pearl Harbor was shaped by FDR's "day that will live in infamy." By going to China Nixon showed us how to open to a demon enemy.  And, God help us, GW Bush shaped our disastrous response to 9/11.    

For this reason, our leaders must be role models.  We need them to show us how to respond, how to attain a higher level of debate and citizenship. It's important that our leaders not leave semen stains on dresses of women who are not their wives, know how to spell potato, and, for Chrissake, know how to say nuclear.  It's important for our leaders to show us how to engage in respectful debate, to speak with integrity, and to win, or to lose, with grace and dignity.  In this, our leaders are failing us, Barack Obama, I believe, being the notable exception.

I sincerely hope that Ms. Giffords's assassination attempt will result in a serious re-thinking of the quality of the debate in this country.  We have been losing something precious, and it's time for the adults to stand up and to send the children to their rooms.<<

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2011/01/a-no-regrets-response-to-the-tucson-shootings/69172/