It's pretty clear who the culprit is in this shooting: the shooter. But social dynamics, causes and ills are often factors in crimes committed by those who are easily movable, short-tempered, and mentally unstable. I'll tell you a little story. Once at a family friend's house, I met a man who seemed to be fairly nice at first. His politics were ideologically puristic left, but he didn't seem like a violent person. He and I got into what seemed like a fairly innocuous debate about President Obama. He brought up the President's Nobel peace prize and told me that I could not possibly defend it. I could, of course, and I did. At this point, he became not just angry but violent. He put his right palm into a fist and charged at me. I stood up, ready to defend myself, and he finally backed down, perhaps also because he was embarrassed to see everyone else seeing his temper with a bad eye. I later had a chance to find out the political environment he had surrounded himself with, and was not at all surprised to learn it was super-Leftist revolutionaries who demonized and ostracized anyone who dared to take an equal platform and disagree with them. He saw me - and they saw my kind - not simply as an opponent but an enemy.
That is exactly what has happened in the Rightist spectrum of contemporary American politics. Since before the President's ascension to power, the right wing's standard-bearers in the media, in government and in business have heated up their rhetoric, making it more violent, more disruptive and more barbaric every single day. A lot of people have focused on Sarah Palin's cross-hairs ad that specifically targeted (followed up by Palin's own incendiary reinforcement of "Don't retreat, RELOAD"). Here's the ad, in full, with my modification to highlight the target Palin put on Gabby Giffords:
This imagery, however, is but a symptom of the problem. Sarah Palin did not cause this disaster single-handedly. But it is an important symbol of the problem we are facing. This image was neither the beginning nor the end of the Right's violent political rhetoric. In the wake of passage of health reform, I wrote a piece last March pointing out the political violence perpetrated against Democratic supporters of health care reform. See that broken glass window at that office? It's Gabby Gifford's office. The far right whipped their supporters into a frenzy through the use of often racist, and almost-always violent, incendiary language, geared to do one thing: to present President Obama and Democrats as not simply political opponents but enemies.
Whether we're talking about the birthers who sought to undermine the very legitimacy of this historic presidency or the lies perpetrated by, among others, United States Senators, about "death panels," it had the same goal: dehumanize the opposition, demonize them, and turn them into the enemy. Day in and day out we hear things on Fox News and Glenn Beck about an imaginary plot by America's enemies (i.e. Barack Obama) trying to enslave its people (err, white people). They weren't simply political foes to be fought on the battlefield of ideas and democracy, but to be "taken out" by the means of "second amendment remedies" if necessary (Sharron Angle, US Senate candidate in Nevada). That is why bloody rhetoric like Michelle Bachmann's revolution-talk in front of Tea Party crowds, Sarah Palin's "reload" nastiness, and Quayle Jr's "knocking the hell out of [Washington, DC]" were welcomed within the Right, which now runs the Republican party. That's what was pumped up by Fox News constantly referring to President Obama's foreign trips as "surrender" tours. There's that war metaphor again. Us and them. US and its enemies. If you try to talk, you are surrendering, and therefore you are an enemy too.
The right conservative worldview - at least for a long while - has seen negotiations as wimpy, and force as the preferred method to deal with enemies. Shoot first, ask questions later. Be afraid. Shock and awe. Peaceful solutions are for wimps. Those who want force as the last resort are not just wimps but unpatriotic traitors.
That is a climate where violence takes root. When those who people look to for leadership egg on insidious rhetoric, racist propaganda, and make their followers afraid of their political opponents like they'd be afraid of their enemy, for those who are prone to instability, their animal instincts begin to overwhelm their reason and their humanity. Whenever "they're enemy" rhetoric replaces reasoned debate, violence (and violent tendencies) rises. This is not just conjecture, nor is it educated guess. Death threats to President Obama are coming at the rate of over 400% higher than they were for President Bush. We have had people show up outside presidential townhalls with a gun strapped to their waist. We have had a shooting at the National Holocaust Museum, we have had a women's health provider shot and killed at point-blank range, we have had a military base shooting, and we have had an American try to fly a jet into a federal building.
And now, a gunman in Arizona has shot and killed a federal judge, and nearly killed a member of Congress. Yet, we have right wing hooey idiots on radio and television. going on and on about how their rhetoric had nothing to do with any of this. That any caution against incendiary political rhetoric is an attempt to suppress political speech. This is their "who, me?" moment. They are now outraged that anyone dares to to point at the social toxic environment and their contribution to it. This is nothing but a pure attempt on their part to shut down free speech - the kind of free speech that allows us to openly discuss the effects of political demonization, racism, hate speech and incendiary rhetoric. At the minimum, we owe this country to have that conversation. Rush Limbaugh et al need to understand that freedom of speech is not his sole province.
I cherish freedom of speech, and I don't think any legislation is going to be able to shut off incendiary rhetoric. There are always going to be political fringes practicing their craft. What freedom of speech does not guarantee, however, is the right to make millions of dollars while spewing hate speech. It does not guarantee an audience. On the contrary, it gives the rest of us the right to band together and demand that these personalities be kept off our cable tv, our public airwaves, and elsewhere. That if they are going to encourage violence, racism and bigotry, they can do so, but we have the right to demand that they not be provided a giant platform. I don't think the solution to the tragedy in Arizona and others like it is anything other than democracy. Democracy over corporate greed. Better disclosure and limits on campaign as well as media funding. Rules of journalism - rules on anyone that wants to brand themselves news.
It will take another thing. It will take us being citizens of a nation rather than consumers of info-tainment. Ultimately, we are going to have take responsibility for our own airwaves, our own rhetoric, and above all, our own country.