I wasn’t surprised to learn this weekend that a member of Congress had been shot in the head by a would-be assassin, nor was I surprised that six peaceably assembled constituents had been murdered. Our contemporary political culture is soaked with violent, apocalyptic rhetoric, most of it crafted and abetted by right-wing extremists; meanwhile, our lockstep fealty to the Second Amendment, our equating of guns with Freedom, makes it possible for your basic neighborhood nutbag to traipse to the mall and buy himself a Glock, and thereby translate harsh talk into deadly action.
So this kind of tragedy was bound to happen. Indeed, given the toxic discourse in the Obama era, I’m just amazed that it took this long.Earlier today, Fox News gave air time to a shrink who insisted, incredibly, that the planned assassination of Garbrielle Giffords was “not a political story, except for the tragic shooting of a politician.” Translation: Accused killer Jared Lee Loughner is just a lone wolf who could’ve been randomly firing at anybody – a theory that hate rhetoric folks on the right would undoubtedly prefer to embrace. The problem, however, is that the cops have found Loughner’s handwritten ouevre, in which he talked of “assassination,” of how he had “planned ahead,” and the only person named in the notes was “Giffords.” Meanwhile, in a video, he offered his definition of a terrorist: “a person who employs terror…as a political weapon.”So let’s not dance around the issue, or engage in the usual false equivalencies (“both sides do it,” yetta yetta), or try to somehow pretend that words don’t have consequences. Because that would only serve to insult the memories of the people who flocked to a shopping center to meet their congresswoman and wound up dead, including a nine-year-old girl who joined the student council and was hoping to see democracy in action.Granted, the shooter didn’t preface his deed by telling Giffords, “Sarah Palin says hello.” And there’s certainly no evidence that tea-party conspirators wound him up like a toy soldier and dispatched him to wreak havoc. But so what? Fringe characters are precisely the people who are most likely to feed off the ugliest rhetoric from afar, and take it seriously, syncing it with their own delusions.Most of the hate-mongers who keep equating Obama and the Democrats with “tyranny,” who warn darkly about the need for “Second Amendment remedies,” who advise “Don’t retreat – Reload!,” and who cite the Thomas Jefferson line about how the tree of liberty should be refreshed with blood, surely view themselves as non-violent. As do the mainstream Republican politicians who have enabled the talk and profited from it politically. Indeed, let us assume that Giffords’ Republican opponent, during the ’10 midterms, felt it was merely harmless fun when he circulated this quasi-grammatical campaign announcement: “Get on Target for Victory in November Help remove Gabrielle Giffords from office Shoot a fully automatic M16 with Jesse Kelly.” After all, engaging in a little state-of-the-art bang-bang is just another facet of free speech, right?But as Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik, the top local cop, said today: “When the rhetoric about hatred, about mistrust of government, about paranoia of how government operates, and to try to inflame the public on a daily basis 24 hours a day seven days a week, it has impact on people – especially (those) who are unbalanced personalities to begin with.”Naturally, some Arizona conservatives, such as Senator Jon Kyl and talk-show host J. D. Hayward, have been attacking Dupnik for going “off the deep end.” But I’d rather trust the word of a 50-year career cop who has been elected county sheriff seven successive times, and who belongs to everything from the Rotary Club to the International Association of Chiefs of Police. And Dupnik was echoed early today by a senior Republican senator who spoke anonymously to the Politico website: “There’s been a desensitizing. These town halls and cable TV and talk radio, everybody’s trying to outdo each other…Tone matters…And the Republican party in particular needs to enforce that.”And we’re not just talking about rhetoric. Gifford’s local office was vandalized last spring, in the wake of her vote in favor of health care reform. She braved the furies during the summer ’09 town hall meetings; at one event, a Real Man got so upset that his requisite gun fell out of his armpit holster and bounced on the floor. Giffords’ local office has been a magnet for protesters ever since.Could these shootings have happened “anywhere,” as the apologists insist? In theory, yeah. But they didn’t occur anywhere. They happened in a swing district, in a turbulent, gun-loving state, to a moderate Democrat who as we speak is resting in a medically-induced coma. Given the kind of place that Giffords represents, and her party affiliation, this incident has its own cruel logic. As Giffords herself said on TV last March, referring to the rhetoric and violence, “When people do that, you’ve got to realize there are consequences.” So, no, this is not a shock. Rather, it’s the inevitable side effect of our toxic stew, runneth over. Sooner or later, some whacko out there was going to drink too much.One year ago, in fact, I wrote about the stew as it was coming to boil: “The parameters of outrage inexorably expand. It’s not enough anymore to be shrill, to call somebody an idiot or a moron or words not fit for a family newspaper. After those frontiers are crossed, what’s left?”So now we know. Question is, what are we going to do about it?