War of words

Jared Loughner kills six and wounds 14 in Tucson. Is ‘vitriolic rhetoric’ to blame?

Pamela White | Boulder Weekly

Jared Lee Loughner, a 22-year old with a history of mental problems, buys a Glock 19 at a sporting goods store on Nov. 30. On Saturday, Jan. 8, he pops an extended magazine into the weapon and fires 31 rounds into a crowd of people who came to greet Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, 40, a moderate Democrat. He kills six people, including a 9-year-old girl, and gravely injures Giffords and 13 others. His killing spree comes to a premature end when a 61-year-old woman tackles him, preventing him from reloading.

And for a moment, Americans stop to grieve in shared anguish over the senseless loss of life and suffering.

Then, during a press conference, Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik calls for the nation to do a bit of soul-searching and denounces the “vitriolic rhetoric” that dominates our radio and television programming in the United States. This is followed by a swell of outrage directed at far-right pundits, Sarah Palin and the Tea Party movement over hostile remarks and images that seemed to suggest violence — and which in some instances specifically targeted Giffords.

The right answers swiftly with outrage of its own, together with a bit of dog-wagging, trying to turn the tables on liberal pundits, such as Keith Olbermann, who demands that the public repudiate politicians and pundits who refuse to lay aside violent imagery and language.

While the maelstrom surrounding his actions and motives rages, Loughner sits in a jail cell, silent, leaving us to wonder.

Did the “vitriolic rhetoric” that the right aimed at Giffords play any role in this shooting? And what impact, if any, does nasty political hyperbole have on our democracy?

The power of words

“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”

So goes the popular child’s rhyme meant to deflect the childhood pain of name-calling.

But words have power. They can create an environment of fear and intimidation. And the wrong words in the right ear at the right time can sometimes incite those who are unbalanced to act out violently. Our laws recognize this, limiting free speech to exclude, for example, the use of “fighting words.”

In the world of politics, however, it seems that almost anything goes.

During the 2009 Longmont City Council election, an anonymous conservative blogger posted a cartoon image of Democratic candidates and Democratic council members as chickens about to be decapitated. The violent image was the most extreme local example of hostility in an election that included hostile blog posts and resulted in a call for civility from candidates, some of whom found the decapitation imagery unsettling.

Former CU professor Ward Churchill knows first-hand how “vitriolic rhetoric” can affect a person’s life.

Churchill came under fire by conservative commentators after an obscure essay he’d written on Sept. 11, 2001, was unearthed and dragged into the spotlight. In the essay, titled “On the Justice of Roosting Chickens,” Churchill compared some who worked at the World Trade Center to Nazi Adolf Eichmann, suggesting that, like Eichmann, they were complicit in perpetuating an unjust and immoral political and economic system.

Television personality Bill O’Reilly went on a crusade against Churchill, pounding on the issue night after night, repeatedly calling him a traitor and suggesting he be tried for treason.

So did Denver radio talk-show hosts Dan Caplis and Craig Silverman. Farright radio host “Gunny” Bob Newman went so far as to argue that Churchill should be executed.

“I got well over a hundred death threats in less than 60 days,” Churchill told Boulder Weekly on Monday. “I got massive amounts of ugly stuff, but stuff with some kind of explicit threat — more than 100 in less than 60 days. That’s not customary.”

Critics of Sarah Palin were quick in the aftermath of the Tucson killings to connect the event with Palin’s harsh rhetoric during the 2010 campaign. In particular, they cite a map Palin published on her website in March 2010 that features crosshairs, such as those seen through a rifle scope, over the districts of 20 Democrats that Palin and the Tea Party were hoping to unseat.

Palin announced the map with the following post on Twitter:

“Commonsense Conservatives & lovers of America: Don’t Retreat, Instead – RELOAD. Pls see my Facebook page.”

The imagery of both the tweet and the map is unmistakably related to firearms. One of the targeted districts was Giffords’. A short time later, Giffords’ district office was vandalized.

Giffords was concerned enough to say on MSNBC’s The Daily Rundown, “The rhetoric is incredibly heated. The way that she has it depicted has the crosshairs of a gun sight over our district. When people do that, they have got to realize there are consequences to that.”

But then the 2010 election seemed replete with references to arms, especially among Tea Party candidates.

Giffords’ opponent, Jesse Kelly, invited supporters to come shoot a fully automatic M15 with him in a message about removing Giffords from office.

Republican candidate Sharron Angle made news during her failed campaign against incumbent Sen. Harry Ried, D-Nevada, for suggesting that if the Tea Party movement didn’t get its way, there might be violence.

“You know, our Founding Fathers put that Second Amendment in there for a good reason and that was for the people to protect themselves against a tyrannical government,” she told listeners on a radio talk show. “In fact, you know, Thomas Jefferson said it’s good for a country to have a revolution every 20 years. I hope that’s not where we’re going, but, you know, if this Congress keeps going the way it is, people are really looking toward those Second Amendment remedies and saying, ‘My goodness, what can we do to turn this country around?’ And I’ll tell you the first thing we need to do is take Harry Reid out.”

Perhaps it’s not surprising that in the wake of Obama’s election the Department of Homeland Security reported that right-wing extremism was on the rise, or that during the 2010 campaign threats against members of Congress surged by 300 percent, according to Politico.com.

CNN anchor Dan Lemon discussed Palin’s tweet and her Facebook post, as well, debating back in March 2010 whether it could be considered incitement to violence. Marc Lamont Hill of Columbia University participated in that discussion and told Lemon, “This is wholly irresponsible for anyone who prides him or herself as a political leader. I mean, you have crosshairs on a map. You have gun language, militaristic language and the sort of inciting towards violence. That’s a very problematic thing.”

Palin rejected that analysis at the time, telling reporters, “That’s not inciting violence. What that is doing is trying to inspire people to get involved in their local elections and this upcoming federal elections (sic). It’s telling people that their arms are their votes. It’s not inciting violence. It’s telling people, don’t ever let anybody tell you to sit down and shut up, Americans.”

She did not, however, deny that the crosshairs on the map were crosshairs.

In the aftermath of the Jan. 9 shooting, however, Palin aide Rebecca Mansour attempted to reject allegations that Palin had done anything irresponsible, claiming the crosshairs were meant to be “surveyor’s marks like you’d see on a map.”

Perhaps the Palin faithful believe her. But actions speak louder than words, and, tellingly, the map was removed soon after the shooting.

News vs. entertainment

The media response to Loughner’s shooting spree will one day make an interesting case study for a sociologist or journalism professor.

Dupnik’s criticism of the “vitriolic rhetoric” common to radio and television talk shows seemed to resonate with enough people to provoke a wide response. A CBS poll shows that 19 percent of Republicans, 42 percent of Democrats and 33 percent of Independents believe that harsh political rhetoric played a role in last Saturday’s shooting.

Olbermann delivered a passionate rebuke to conservative pundits and politicians, naming Palin, O’Reilly, Angle, Kelly and Glenn Beck, demanding that they repudiate violent language and imagery and calling for Americans to “repudiate” pundits and politicians who refuse.

Olbermann’s call was answered with fury.

Rush Limbaugh repeatedly called Dupnik “Sheriff Dipstick” and tried to deflect liberal concerns about violent rhetoric by making jokes about Democrats, then suggesting that Loughner has the full support of the Democratic Party.

Rep. Virginia Foxx, R.-N.C., told the Winston-Salem Journal that Loughner was a communist and “the liberal of liberals.”

Palin’s aide likewise referred to Loughner as being left-leaning, and Palin herself accused liberal commentators of “blood libel” for blaming her for the shooting, sparking outrage from some Jewish leaders.

Conservative bloggers suggested that Daily Kos should be blamed, rather than Palin, for criticizing Giffords for voting against Nancy Pelosi as House speaker in a blog. “My CongressWOMAN voted against Nancy Pelosi! And is now DEAD to me,” the blog’s Jan. 6 headline read. This was a theory liberal pundits weren’t quick to embrace, preferring to point their fingers at the right.

Before the bodies of the shooting victims were put to rest, the rhetoric machine was in full production again. Rather than presenting the public with information, left and right seemed to be locked in a blame game, a verbal fistfight.

How did the political conversation in the United States grow so strained?

Elizabeth Skewes, an associate professor at the University of Colorado’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication, sees a couple of problems.

“The first is the volume, and by that I mean both the intensity of the rhetoric and the amount of it,” Skewes says.

Because so many people now get their news from television and the Internet, a lot of people confuse commentary — i.e., opinion — with news.

“Bill O’Reilly is commentary,” she says. “Rush Limbaugh is commentary. Keith Olbermann is commentary. But increasingly we have let it all fall under the label of journalism.”

Though she hasn’t done an academic study of this, she says she suspects that people give the pronouncements of commentators more credence than they otherwise might if they understood that what’s being said is just one person’s opinion.

“It keeps getting notched up so that it’s more vitriolic and it’s angrier. It’s more pointed toward the other side,” she says.

The mainstream media doesn’t help matters.

“Instead of talking about the opinions in the middle, which is where the vast majority of Americans fall, we find the person who’s pretty far on the right and pretty far on the left and let them shout at each other for a while,” she says. “And the rest of us are just supposed figure it out when, in fact, those more extreme viewpoints probably don’t represent what most people think. But it’s what we’ve come to believe is the truth about American politics.”

Skewes suspects that a great many moderate Americans wonder where they fit in because they’ve been led to believe that the extremes of opinion are more the norm.

And those extremes are sometimes meant not as a literal representation of what’s out there, but as entertainment, intended to draw ratings.

“Look at Ann Coulter — the outrageous things she will say, the inflammatory things that she will write,” Skewes says. “I think she laughs all the way to the bank, and I think it actually increases her profit margin to be that outrageous.”

Skewes says that, thanks in part to the Internet, speed seems to have replaced accuracy as the goal of much reporting, with media organizations focusing on the next tweet or the next blog post as they compete for clicks and scoops.

“We have to stop doing breathless journalism and do reasoned journalism,” she says. “Journalism is supposed to give us the information we need to be free and self-governing. That’s its primary purpose. In fact, if that’s what I need, I don’t need to know this nanosecond. I can wait for you to get it right.”

The second part of the media problem involves the public.

“We don’t want to do the heavy lifting that’s required of democracy,” she says. “This is a form of government that requires us to be active participants and understand a few key issues, but instead we’d rather watch American Idol or Jersey Shore. I’ve got a colleague up at Colorado State who says that the god that we most worship in this nation is convenience. I think he may be right. We go for the low-hanging fruit.”

In the Internet age, this increasingly means choosing media sources we already agree with, reinforcing our own beliefs, rather than seeking facts and challenging our perceptions. If Limbaugh or O’Reilly can digest the issues for us and tell us what we want to hear, then we don’t need to pick up a newspaper or seek facts for ourselves.

“People can now very much selfselect so that they don’t have to read anything that they might disagree with that might create any headache for them,” she says. “But if they do take the time to read something else, they do it with their preconceived notions and say, ‘This is all poppycock.’” She cites a study in which different demographic groups were given the same article to read and then asked to respond. Republicans saw a pro-Democratic Party bias in the story, while Democrats saw a pro-Republican Party bias. The experiment was repeated with an article about religion. Catholics saw a pro-Protestant bias, while Protestants saw a pro-Catholic bias. When the article involved labor issues, union members saw a pro-management bias, and management saw a pro-union bias.

“We layer on our perceptions,” Skewes says. “We’ve got what we bring to the media.”

With regard to Loughner and the Jan. 8 shooting, Skewes says it concerns her that so many people are speaking about Loughner and his motivations without having facts.

“We don’t know enough to say anything, and yet everybody’s talking about how he wasn’t this and he wasn’t that,” she says. “We don’t know why he did what he did. We may not know for months.”

Skewes says her broader concern with regard to heated media rhetoric isn’t that it might spawn violence — no reasonable person would interpret crosshairs on Palin’s website as a call to go shoot someone, she says — but that this climate of rage is making it more difficult for the American people to  govern their country.

“It’s making it more difficult to compromise on issues, and our government is based on the need for compromise,” she says. “Politics is supposed to be about getting people to sit down at the same table and say, ‘OK, we’re this far apart on this. How can we bridge the gap? How can we make legislation that works for most Americans?’”

Who’s to blame?

Loughner isn’t one of those killers about whom we’re likely to hear, “He seemed like such a nice man.” He made others afraid.

He had repeated contacts with police at Pima Community College (PCC), which he attended from September 2005 to Oct. 4, 2010, for being disruptive in class and in the library. After that he made a strange video, in which he declared that the school was illegal under the U.S. Constitution. According to a PCC news release, the college suspended him, refusing to let him return until he got mental-health clearance “indicating, in the opinion of a mental health professional, his presence at the College does not present a danger to himself or others.”

He tried to enlist in the Army, but was rejected.

Clearly, those around him saw warning signs that something was wrong. There are other indicators, as well, including bizarre YouTube videos in which he rants about government mind control, the need for a new currency and his views on illiteracy.

He made contact with Giffords before, attending a 2007 political event and asking her, “What is government if words have no meaning?” He reportedly did not like her answer and, according to a report in Mother Jones, which interviewed a friend of Loughner’s, had a grudge against Giffords ever since.

These facts are inconvenient for those who wish to assert that our political climate played any role at all in Loughner’s actions. No one knew who Palin was in 2007, a year that also predates the Tea Party movement and much of the extreme anti-liberal rhetoric that accompanied Barack Obama’s rise to the White House.

But the facts will also frustrate those on the right who try to ascribe some kind of leftist agenda to Loughner’s actions.

Loughner is registered as an Independent and didn’t vote in 2010. He includes Mein Kampf, the fascist tome penned by Adolf Hitler, among his favorite books, but he also includes Marx’s Communist Manifesto. Other than vague online references to government mind control, the need for a new currency and illiteracy, he has yet to explain his motivation for the shooting.

If one were to examine the facts and then speculate, one would have to surmise that mental illness is the most likely culprit when it comes to Loughner’s motivation. Unless and until evidence surfaces that he saw Palin’s map or listened to a Tea Party activist and took murderous inspiration from them, that’s all we have. And even if angry partisan rhetoric played a role in his decision, the responsibility for pulling the trigger rests solely with him. But you won’t hear this theory discussed much on talk radio or on television talk shows because it doesn’t draw as many viewers or listeners as does two opponents blaming each other’s political parties and shouting each other down. Nor does it move as many papers as would heated accusations about crosshairs and gun metaphors.

Still, if channeled correctly, the conversation about our “climate of hate,” as Paul Krugman called it in his opinion column on the subject, might result in improvements in how the media operate and how politicians reach out to their public.

Roger Ailes, the chairman and chief executive officer of Fox News Channel, claims to have taken steps to turn down the volume.

“I told all of our guys, shut up, tone it down, make your argument intellectually,” Ailes told GlobalGrind.com in an interview posted Monday. “You don’t have to do it with bombast. I hope the other side does that.”

Skewes believes that the media need to refocus on ethical considerations rather than market concerns.

“What we need to do is turn down the entertainment value and ratchet back up the informational value,” she says. “In the short term, they might lose some money, but in the long term — maybe I’m just idealistic — I have to believe that if we can swing the pendulum back, people might actually value some rationality in their information.”

Rather than getting caught up in the heated argument over who is to blame for the shooting, Americans might be best served by doing what they did during those first hours in the immediate aftermath — setting aside their partisan anger and turning their thoughts toward Loughner’s victims.

At the end of the day, one truth remains: an American murdered Americans.

And that is a heart-breaking tragedy that should be above the pettiness of our political squabbles.

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