While the tragedy of the shooting of Representative Giffords is fresh, America is taking a self-reflective moment to analyze what caused a 22-year-old Arizona man to shoot nearly 20 people, killing six, including a judge, a young girl, a congresswoman, and one of her legislative aids. However, the approaches blaming the conservatives, pushing back against the liberals, or letting them all off the hook, all miss the true danger of our divisive, vitriolic politics.
Despite the fact that the motives of this killer are still unknown, and he has shown an interest in Congresswoman Giffords since 2007, many are pointing fingers at the fear mongers within our political parties and punditries, especially Republicans like Sarah Palin, or blow-hard shock-jock radio and TV hosts who have contributed to a culture of fear and violence, sometimes literally drawing cross-hairs on Giffords and others. Republicans, of course, are firing back. On MSNBC, New York Congressman Michael Grimm (R) said that this violent act was committed by a single mentally unstable man, and to blame this violence on Palin, or any other politician, is ridiculous.
For those on the political left, it is hard to ignore the logical chain of events: imagery of violence (don’t retreat, reload) and open revolution, combined with the mentioning of Congressmen Giffords specifically, makes it crystal clear who to blame. While most of these critics agree that politicians aren’t specifically trying to encourage violence, their words have power, and in the hands of the wrong people lives may be lost.
Others have taken a more conciliatory reproach of the heated politics of our day. The New York Times’ Matt Bai has said that politicians on both sides are not stooping to the level of inciting violence, but rather they are caught up with the hyperbole of the times. He gave several examples of how Republicans and Democrats are both to blame (the best response to this argument, however, was made by Jonathan Weiler, who argues that the blame still lies primarily with the Republicans for our toxic discourse on politics).
No doubt, an important dialog about the decency of our politics will ensue, but it will miss an important point: the heated rhetoric, the hate speech, the shock-jocks and the vitriolic politicians, have already claimed a casualty.
The truth. If politics is war “by other means,” in the last decade it has moved from a chivalric duel to scorched-earth total-war, and according to the Greek dramatist Aeschylus, the first casualty of war is truth. Republicans and Democrats have both run with slogans like “Take Our Country Back,” and each political debate, on almost any issue, has become increasingly divisive. The hyperbole is contributing to a sense of panic for both sides of the political spectrum. The general atmosphere in America is that the nation is crumbling and it’s the other guys fault. Whether the shooter was influenced by his environment or not, this shooting occurred in the midst of that atmosphere. According to Arizona’s own sheriff, that state has become a “Mecca for prejudice and bigotry.” It’s hard to deny that tensions surrounding U.S. politics have reached a fever pitch, and it’s hard to find evidence that this kind of division is helping. When our fellow Americans become “enemies, at home,” then political progress is destined to fail, and politicians are destined to become increasingly extreme.
The American people have been trained by the media and the politicians that the enemy is everywhere. All Democrats are American-hating socialists, all Republicans are gun-nut big-business fascists. We should vote for our local school committee the same was we should vote for our President. All issues are a slippery slope, another potential loss for freedom. This simply isn’t so. To dismiss fear mongering as a tactic doesn’t confront the real problem, that we’ve come to believe all of the hyperbole.
Here are a few examples of how rhetoric has gotten out of hand: George Bush did not lie to the American people to go to war for oil. He did not lead us into war with Iraq so that we could lose thousands of soldiers, trillions of dollars, and still fail to establish a model democracy in the Middle East. He certainly had alternative, secret reasons for deposing Saddam Hussein, but there is no evidence that he thought this action would weaken his country. Barack Obama is not a socialist, as far as I can tell he likes to recycle Republican pro-business health care packages and bailout banks without taking control. In fact, Obama’s health care plan is less “socialized” than Nixon’s. Obama’s DEFINITELY not going to take away your guns, as gun rights have thrived because of Obama, and under the 111th congress. General Petreus did not “betray us” when he gave President Bush and the U.S. Congress advice about how a surge of troops would improve the situation in Iraq. You might disagree with one, or many, or all of the public figures I’ve listed above, but the best evidence available suggests that all of the labels listed above are oversimplified demonization.
This kind of extreme hyperbole is preventing our nation from achieving solutions to problems for several reasons. The first reason is that it is hard to work with a leader whom we’ve drawn a Hitler mustache on. The second reason is that, by constantly claiming that the sky is falling, we’ve become the boy who cried wolf. We’ve missed the occasions when the sky really is falling, or when our leaders really have earned their strongest rebukes. Former Vice-President Cheney is arguably guilty of treason for betraying the identity of CIA operative Valerie Plame over a political dispute with her husband, who disputed some of the evidence for going to war in Iraq. Dick Cheney also admitted that he was behind the waterboarding decisions, and he has distorted the reasons for authorizing war and torture. The problem is that liberals had already decided that Cheney and Bush were Hitler/Stalin, so all the yelling and screaming in the world could not stop these very serious crimes. The left had already equated tax cuts for the wealthy, differences of opinion on environmental policy, and trickle down economics as treason. We see similar things occurring now, but the parties in power have been reversed (at least, for the last two years). The crying wolf effect, combined with the demonizing of legislative partners, has severely injured the American political system, regardless of whether or not this most recent despicable act of violence can be blamed on our political climate.
Our national priorities have become completely subverted to the will of the political strategists. Blaming Sarah Palin for an assassination attempt, or blaming Democrats for political opportunism and hypocrisy (fairly or unfairly), isn’t constructive behavior. It just perpetuates the hyperbole, the hysterical rhetoric that has brought us to this state of affairs. But letting either side off the hook, or dismissing the power of words, will doom our political system, which is based on the premise that we need to work together to defend freedom from tyranny.