Jan 102011

On Saturday the United States saw unfold a terrible tragedy that has left many dead, including a Federal judge and a nine year old girl, and more wounded.  Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona only just escaped death by luck and remains in critical condition.  Yet this act did not take place in a vacuum.  It happened hot on the heels of one of the most vitriolic and downright vicious elections in recent memory.  Now this charge may sound hyperbolic until you look at snippets from the 2010 campaign trail with examples like an appeal to “Second Amendment remedies”, resorting to the “bullet box” if the ballot box fails, declarations that Obama’s election was an assault on America’s soul, the urging of  “don’t retreat, just reload”, declarations that the Vietnamese are after “my” seat, and the infamous target map.  It cannot be said with any certainty that any one of these acts was what led to the bloodbath this past Saturday.  It is highly unlikely that the increasingly hostile political climate, with the flames recklessly and cynically fanned by political personalities, candidates, and elected officials, had nothing to do with the tragedy in Tuscon.  If this were an isolated incident, a one-time act by an unhinged individual, then such claims would be over the top, laughable, and easily dismissed.

If only that were the case.

Far from being a single act by a lone gunman Saturday’s explosion of violence has much in the way of recent and infamous company.  In early 2009 a Pennsylvania man ambushed and killed several police officers out of fear that the new Obama administration was going to take his guns away.  A little more than a month later abortion provider Dr. George Tiller, a man repeatedly called a  “baby killer” by political pundit Bill O’Reilly, was gunned down in his church.  In February of this past year a small plane deliberately rammed the IRS building in Austin, Texas.  In August a lone man exchanged fire with California Highway Patrol officers while on the way to attempt to attack the Tides Foundation, a frequent target of the rants of Glenn Beck.  October 25th saw the brutal beating administered by a Rand Paul supporter to a MoveOn activist in Kentucky.  Most recently, only just on the heels of the Tuscon attack, was today’s discovery of the dead body of the Congressional affairs director for Progress Energy in a burning car.

These attacks show a disturbing pattern of violent action rising to meet the siren song of violent rhetoric.  Far more troubling is the increasingly cavalier attitude public personalities are taking to the handling of freedom of speech.  In none of these incidents, so far, has an apology for previous violent speech been offered.  There has been no attempt by the loudest voices to dial back the heat but to stoke the flames to a roaring inferno.  All the while the oh-so-objective media has supplied the fuel to these modern day demagogues by giving them coverage without consideration for content and creating sensation for the sake of puffing up ratings.  Instead of shunning such radicals, as a civil society should, they have been consistently given the loudest megaphone the broadcast world can find.  They rage freely with no concern for the potential consequences of abusing a position of public trust ducking responsibility every time they are cornered.

There is something terribly wrong with this picture.  Far from what the old child’s rhyme says words have the greatest power of all.  In virtually every cosmology the world over speech and writing are of divine origin.  Skalds, bards, messengers, and scribes were under divine protection and their speech given great weight.  Our ancestors understood that words have the power to undo kings and lay low empires.  Our own history validates this.  It was not the first shots fired at Lexington and Concord that pushed the colonies to secede from Britain but the bold words of Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson that ignited the hearts of the first American patriots.  While bloody battles and the hail of lead would begin and end the Civil War it was the clarion call of the Emancipation Proclamation that truly turned the tide of the conflict and our nation’s history.  It was the words of Upton Sinclair that led to the creation of the FDA and the soaring dream of Dr. Martin Luther King that lit the night during the battle for Civil Rights in the 1960s.  Now we have loud, shrill voices screaming for attention with no regard for the effect their speech may have on society.

This dangerous, reckless attitude has already borne much in the way of poisonous fruit.  Our ancestors understood that as much as freedom isn’t free rights come with responsibilities.  Part of why we keep those rights is because we have a civil society which will defend both our rights and protect those who exercise them from retribution.  It is this lack of violence in the political sphere, just as much as the blood and honor of America’s finest on battlefields the world over, that secures the blessings of liberty for both us and our posterity.  The attack in Arizona is a rare moment where, on the brink of madness, we can stop and pull ourselves back from the abyss.

If we do not pull back from the brinksmanship that dominates our discourse then we will fall into something much worse.  Hopefully it will not take another shooting, another bombing, or a Congressman beating a Senator senseless to drive home how serious our situation truly is.

Also published at Ryan’s Desk

  32 Responses to “Rights Without Responsibility”

  1. Actually, it appears that this nutcase was obsessed with Giffords because he didn’t like the way she answered the question, ‘What is government if words have no meaning?’

    As of right now, there is precisely as much evidence linking Loughner to Islam as their is linking him to the Republican Party.

    • What happened on Saturday was predicted in the DHS’ report on domestic terrorism issues two years ago:


      The same report the GOP accused of being a political hack job. So far the report has been dead on.

      I’d also like to point out that if the man was stalking Giffords I have a hard time believing he would not have come into contact with Palin’s target map or any of the other rhetoric aimed at the Congresswoman. To say he would not have come into contact with such information is implausible and it is definitely plausible that the rhetoric in question could have given a man who was mentally unstable some form of external validation which is the point of the DHS report.

      • what is sad is all the classic signs were ther and noone did anything about it, maybe people wake up, and report these nut jobs

  2. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Reggie Gardner, Pagan + Politics. Pagan + Politics said: Rights Without Responsibility On Saturday the United States http://bit.ly/dX8gIa http://bit.ly/dX8gIa [...]

  3. There are two different issues in play with respect to any attribution of cause and effect.

    First of all, it seems clear from all that has been reported so far that the shooter probably suffers from mental illness — along the lines of paranoid schizophrenia — and that the shooter did in fact do the shooting. What he did or did not read or hear or see that may or may not have entered into his disordered thinking is at best a partial contributor to his actions. It is unlikely that a clear chain of evidence will link a specific stimulus to his specific action.

    Second, there has been a recognized, publicized, and duly noted level of excessively violent rhetoric delivered by professionals with access to the most up-to-date techniques of verbal persuasion, demonizing and suggesting if not urging the killing of political opponents and overthrow of the government. It is quite possible that, concerned as he appears to have been about current political and governmental affairs, this inflammatory rhetoric reached the shooter over a period of months from multiple sources. He apparently planned the shooting ahead of time — it was not an impulsive act. It is likely that the overall incitement to violence contributed either inspiration, command, or expectation of gratification to the shooter.

    We would do well to keep these two aspects of influence distinct in our analysis. Yes, he appears to be solely responsible for taking the fatal actions. And, yes, there is plenty of culpability for inflammatory speech to go around.

    • Excellent points Khalila. There is no one act or speech that one can say caused this tragedy and we’ll likely never know the exact thing that set him off. What can be said is the inflammatory speech most likely entered into what happened but what or when only the shooter knows.

  4. I notice you fail to hit the Political Left for their matching rhetoric of violence, and for their own violent actions. The Right doesn’t have a monopoly on it, and indeed, if Europe is anything to go by, the “Left” is the one that tends to be far, far more violent, they just tend to “mob.”

    When seeking to remove a ravening beasts, be sure that your sword swings to both sides, and not just striking the ones you find distasteful.

    • You’re painting the entire European Left, from Greece to Britain, with the same broad brush which when you examine the facts on the ground is not the case. You’re also comparing the actions of the European Left to the American Left in an article that exclusively deals with American politics. That’s comparing apples to oranges, the two Lefts are hardly lockstep on anything and are two completely different animals in most respects as are European and American politics in general.

      As to the claims of equivalence between rhetoric and actions on the left and right if you have proof of equivalence then please post it. From what I found in my research the only direction claims of need for a revolution, Second Amendment remedies, or restoring to the bullet box if the ballot box fails was from the right. The closest equivalence I found was the example of Loretta Sanchez which I included in this article. There has been no such equivalence of violent actions by people on the Left in the United States that I found or am aware of. If you have something to offer to the contrary then please share it.

      • Perhaps you haven’t looked hard enough. The rather violent actions at the various G20 meetings were not done by right wing mobs, nor was that protest I herd about at one of the colleges (in cali I think) where left wing students took over an entire building. It is a sad fact that the media eagerly posts “right wing extremisms” while underplaying the lefts. I’ve heard Keith Oberman and many of his compatriots say things that are just as bad as what leaves the mouths of OReily and Beck.

        • I’m well aware of the examples you cited actually.

          Now explain how a protest that gets broken up by riot cops or college students peacefully taking over a building shows the same deliberate intent for violence that shooting a Congresswoman, getting into a shootout with police, or ramming an IRS building with a plane does.

          • I find it rare that those of the “right wing” get into shootouts with police. The whole IRS plane thing to my knowledge was by a man who had lost everything and was being hounded by that organization, and as for the shooting of the congresswoman, the individual’s motives do not appear to be in line with right wing values anymore than they do pagan values or any other group out there. Blaming the political right for this event is nothing more than the sad attempt to win political favor for what I would assume is your own political view point, while ignoring the mental issues had by this individual or that actual root cause of the problem.

            • Did you actually read the man’s manifesto or any of the other links I provided in the article? I posted up two separate examples of individuals explicitly citing Glenn Beck and rhetoric of conservative pundits not to mention the content of the IRS manifesto which was linked from the article I provided.

              I never said the right-wing consistently gets into shootouts with cops. I simply asked you to show me examples of left-wing, as you would call it, attacks on police to show equivalence. All you’ve done is spout off a lot of rhetoric and cough up zero links or facts to support said rhetoric.

  5. “I wouldn’t blame our political rhetoric any more than I would blame heavy metal music for Columbine and that is coming from somebody who truly hates our political environment.”
    John Stewart, 1-10-11

    • “I do think it’s important to watch our rhetoric. I think it’s a worthwhile goal not to conflate our political opponents with enemies if for no other reason than to draw a better distinction between the manifestos of paranoid madmen and what passes for acceptable political and pundit speak. It would be really nice if the ramblings of crazy people didn’t in any way resemble how we actually talk to each other on teevee”

      John Stewart, 1/10/11

      And by the way heavy metal wasn’t constantly bombarding its listeners with exhortations to shoot up schools and the other school shootings of the 90s made no such claims or had any such connections. Heavy metal musicians are also not politicians or pundits who have a much higher profile in society. The rhetoric I cited above consistently used violent language in reference to political opponents disparaging them as enemies of the country and a dire existential threat. That rhetoric also paralleled a string of violent, politically motivated incidents that came almost exclusively from the right which I also cited.

      • And neither is the “rhetoric”. people can turn off the tv or change the channel. Seriously, Fox News may have the highest viewership of the “news channels” but still, how many people do you think are watching that in comparison to every other channel on the tv?

        • In all except the burning car case that I cited all of the perpetrators specifically cited rhetoric espoused by Fox News commentators. With Loughner having stalked Giffords to say he never came into contact with any of the rhetoric surrounding Congresswoman Giffords is ludicrous.

          • everyone has come in contact with rhetoric, both left and right, but that doesn’t mean it is responsible for this any more than mental illness and/or any other issues this man had. Or are you going to also jump on the band wagon about that “altar” of his saying his a “satanist/vodun/pagan” too?

            • I find it somewhat entertaining that you keep saying I blamed the rhetoric as being the sole cause. As much as I think quoting oneself is bad form I think in this case it is necessary:

              “It cannot be said with any certainty that any one of these acts was what led to the bloodbath this past Saturday. It is highly unlikely that the increasingly hostile political climate, with the flames recklessly and cynically fanned by political personalities, candidates, and elected officials, had nothing to do with the tragedy in Tuscon.”

              You miss the larger point and distort what I write in the process. You’ve also pretty amply proven my point by your reactions and lack of proof to support them.

  6. Would somebody please point out the widely publicized and notoriously slanderous media figures on the far left who are espousing on their shows the same kinds of active hatred, bigotry and political violence which the right has been screaming wildly for over these past years?

    I’m not familiar with such left-wing hate speech incidents, just the occasional news story that some asshole of the far right has brought negative reactions from some individual nutjob upon themselves because of their heated rhetoric and behaviors.

    I find myself wondering these past few months, if the worst of these far-right hate mongers are hoping that such an incident as Saturday’s Safeway Massacre would touch off thousands of such nut-jobs all over the country, which they can follow up by sending their Third Wave Christian militias and Seven Mountains Dominion people out to seize power from the legitimate government.

    If there’s any truth to this suspicion, I guess they’ve been disappointed by the lack of copy-cat loonies from this event.

    • Well put Ananta. I’ve heard a lot about equivalence between Left and Right but when it comes to matching up on violent rhetoric the examples of the two matching the other point for point come up short or not at all.

      As far as copycats here’s hoping we don’t see any. We’ve seen enough bloodshed already, any who would seek to take advantage of this horrible act to advance a political agenda through violence will get exactly as they deserve.

      • “when it comes to matching up on violent rhetoric the examples of the two matching the other point for point come up short or not at all.”

        Here is a link to the Code Pink War Criminals Playing Cards:

        Also, you might remember people shouting “coup d’etat!” back in Nov. 2000? Vincent Bugliosi wrote a book about that called “The Betrayal of America”, in which he says that the Bush v. Gore ruling amounted to “criminal conduct bordering on treason.”

        By the way, I happen to agree with assessment of Bush, Cheney, etc, as war criminals who came to power via a judicial coup d’etat.

        • Ok then please show me an example of someone on the Left ramming a government building with a plane or trading fire with police officers.

          • Ryan, you have moved the goalposts so far you are now out in the parking lot.

            • I’ve been consistent in asking for equivalence. The examples I provided in the article include that gentleman who rammed the IRS building with his plane after leaving a note rattling off right-wing anti-government rhetoric ripped right from the headlines.

              You want to prove equivalence show me an equivalent action from someone claiming motivation from the left.

              I’m not the one moving the goalposts. You’re the one who has yet to reach them.

  7. In 1988 there was the case of a writer who was accused of producing material that was irresponsible and incendiary. He was accused of viciously and gratuitously wounding the feelings and dignity of millions of people. He was charged, in effect, with exhibiting flagrant prejudice and of slandering people on the basis of their religious beliefs. In fact, the publication of his writings actually did lead to deadly violence around the world (in one incident alone 37 died). The writer’s name is Salman Rushdie.

    Who gets to decide what is “hate speech” and what is free expression? Nobody, that’s who. Or else there is no such thing as free expression any more.

    • You also do not have the right to shout fire in a crowded theater when there isn’t one. Claiming your political opponents are enemies of the state and out to destroy the country while running for office is not the same as writing a book that offended some radical clerics in Tehran.

      • “Claiming your political opponents are enemies of the state and out to destroy the country while running for office is not the same as writing a book that offended some radical clerics in Tehran.”

        Sez you. This is precisely the point. Rushdie did not just “offend some radical clerics”. In the eyes of a very significant portion of Muslims around the world he committed a heinous crime. In the eyes of many wester multiculturalists he, therefore, committed the crime of “hate speech” because he “insulted” a particular religion.

        For that matter, many people who opposed the Iraq war accused Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Blair, etc, of being war criminals, and they were frequently compared to the Nazis, based on the charges brought against the Nazis at Nuremberg, the first of which was unlawful invasion of other sovereign nations, which is a capital offense under international law.

        • None of the people calling Bush, Cheney, et al war criminals were calling for them to be killed, for violent uprising, or the use of violence against the Bush Administration.

          Show me a Democrat who said in the lead-up to an election that if they lost at the ballot box they would have to resort to the bullet box. Or one who said we should be ready and willing to resort to “Second Amendment remedies.” Or one who said the Bush administration is plotting to destroy the United States of America.

  8. By engaging them are we lending them credibility? Is it time to monitor and ignore them like other hate groups? Are we feeding the beast of intolerance and hate?

    • I wish I had the answer and I wish it was a neat and easy one. When is the appropriate time to greet hate with indignation and when is it best to let it rot?

    • By engaging them are we lending them credibility?

      Who is “them”? All Republicans? All political conservatives? All Glenn Beck fans? Anyone who voted McCain/Palin in 2008?

      Who is it that you are othering?

      Jared Lee Loughner, btw, is a registered Independent, and he did not vote in 2008.

      • I would assume that by ‘them’ we would mean anyone actively contributing to the hostile political environment by spewing forth the hate-filled invective and using the same name-calling tactics that are poisoning the airwaves.

        When we stand as two houses divided, we stand in the way of any true progress being made. Media sensationalism plays its part in driving the wedge between our country. They would like us (by ‘us’ I mean the entire nation) to buy into the “with us or with our enemies” mentality so we won’t pay any attention to how ineffectual it allows our elected officials to be. If you’re not on the Right, you’re a Godless Terrorist. If you’re not with the Left, you’re freaking Daddy Warbucks and don’t care about the suffering of the poor, the environment, what have you. I’m sick of the radicals on BOTH sides stirring up hostility. Can’t we all just agree to disagree and move on? When you resort to name-calling it means you don’t have a valid argument against your opposition’s point.

        I never thought I’d say this, but I long for the days of the ‘USA’ bumper stickers on every vehicle and the feeling of unity we had as a nation when we had an actual outside force acting on us. For now, we all look like a bunch of petulant children squabbling over who gets to play with the ball at recess.