Saturday’s shooting at an event out side a Safeway in Tuscon, AZ is a national tragedy. While the majority of the coverage I’ve seen has been on the target of the shooting, Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, I also think it’s important to note he other victims in this tragedy:
John Roll, 63, a federal district court judge, Gabriel Zimmerman, 30, Giffords’ director of community outreach, Dorwin Stoddard, 76, a pastor at Mountain Ave. Church of Christ, Christina Greene, 9, a student at Mesa Verde Elementary, Dorthy Murray, 76 and Phyllis Scheck, 79 as well as several others who were injured, though their names, as of this writing, have not been released.
These folks just wanted to see their representative to the US House, something that thousands of people in hundreds of districts across the country do every year.
Since the first reports, people have been trying to cast blame on the Tea Party or Sarah Palin, while some on the right have been defending their rhetoric or pointing out the suspected shooter’s “reading list” as proof he’s a leftist.
The truth is, if you’ve looked at his YouTube channel it doesn’t take a rocket surgeon to know that this guy suffered from some kind of mental illness, probably schizophrenia. So trying to assign a political ideology to that condition is ill advised at best. Suffice it to say, the guy had problems and probably needed some help for those problems.
At the end of the day the consequences of this event will be felt nationwide. Just what those consequences are is unknown. But this event is also a consequence of something else…the combination of rhetoric and policy that together may not have been the direct or proximate cause of the shooting, but led to an environment where such an event was much more likely.
Here’s a portion of a discussion held on NBC’s Meet the Press this weekend regarding the heated political rhetoric in our society today.
Just hours after the shooting, former Democratic Senator Gary Hart wrote this commentary regarding the heated political rhetoric in our nation today. From the post:
Gradually, over time, political rhetoric used by politicians and the media has become more inflamatory. The degree to which violent words and phrases are considered commonplace is striking. Candidates are “targeted”. An opponent is “in the crosshairs”. Liberals have to be
“eliminated”. Opponents are “enemies”. This kind of language eminates largely from those who claim to defend American democracy against those who would destroy it, who are evil, and who want to “take away our freedoms”.
Indeed, Hart notes that the rhetoric of politics, particularly in the just past cycle, has moved from “I disagree with your idea” to “it is blasphemous to lay your idea on the altar of the United States and you should be punished for your it”.
This is not an environment where solutions to America’s problems can be found. This is an environment that uses violent speech to push a political perspective.
Could this rhetoric have contributed to an environment where the events of Saturday were more possible? Absolutely. But there is no way to find a direct relationship between political speech and the actions of an individual whose motivations are not only unclear, but tainted by mental illness.
That said, the media climate has contributed to the prevalence of violent political speech, as noted by Rick Perlstein in the New York Times.
The problem is that elite media gatekeepers have abandoned their moral mandate to stigmatize uncivil discourse. Instead, too many outlets reward it. In fact, it is an ironic token of the ideological confusions of our age that they do so in the service of upholding what they understand to be a cornerstone of civility: the notion that every public question must be framed in terms of two equal and opposite positions, the “liberal” one and the “conservative” one, each to be afforded equal dignity, respect — and (the more crucial currency) equal space. This has made the most mainstream of media outlets comically easy marks for those actively working to push public discourse to extremes.
Rewarding this kind of speech with wall to wall coverage can help foster an environment where these events are more possible, but the speech itself doesn CAUSE it. The cause is a symphony of things, some of which we can currently understand and some of which we can not.
According to this report the suspect was suspended from Pima County Community College for “classroom and library disruptions”. The college told the suspect that he could only return if he was cleared by a mental health professional and did not “present a danger” to other students.
I’m not a mental health professional or an educator, but it seems to me that the Administration of this Community College failed society in not connecting the suspect with a mental health professional in the process of issuing the suspension. Doing so may have created a record that could have prevented him from purchasing a firearm at a local dealer a few months later, thought the Wall Stree Journal is reporting that:
Law-enforcement officials, speaking on background, said the alleged shooter, Jared Lee Loughner, purchased a gun legally on Nov. 30 at a Tucson outdoor-sports retail store.
Under federal law, a mentally ill person is barred from purchasing a gun if a court has found that the individual is a danger to himself or the community.
Certainly, if the suspect wanted to procure a firearm there are plenty of ways to do so outside the normal retail market. However, this would have made it more difficult for him to do so, and a private seller may have been able to quickly identify that this person was unstable, and perhaps, not the best candidate for gun ownership.
Arizona also recently passed several laws and budget cuts that may also have played a contributing factor in the event.
In April, Gov. Jan Brewer signed into law a bill that allows people to carry concealed firearms without a permit. Removing this regulatory function may not have deterred the shooter from carrying out his plan this past Saturday, but there’s no way to know for sure now.
Another angle in this event is the availability of mental health care services in Arizona. Arizona Central has an article that notes:
Earlier this year, Gov. Jan Brewer signed off on a $36 million reduction in funding to the Arizona Department of Health Services as part of an effort to close the state’s billion-dollar budget gap.
The cuts, which included a wide swath of treatments and services for the mentally ill, impacted about 12,000 adults and 2,000 children not covered by the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System, the state’s Medicaid program.
This report came out about the same time the Community College directed the suspect to mental health services. If services for a person so clearly mentally ill, and likely suffering from the same problem as the Governor’s own son, were unavailable, this policy has a much more direct relationship to the events of this Saturday than any overheated rhetoric.
At the end of the day, the role policy plays in the events that led up to this attack may also not have been a direct or proximate cause. However, the relationship between rhetoric and policy should be noted. The policies enacted by the State of Arizona follow the ideological arguments of the people primarily responsible for the rhetoric. This relationship further builds the case that, while the specific rhetorical devices used, or the individual policies enacted may not have alone caused this event, they create an environment where an event such as this is more possible or even likely.
Finally, as Howard Fineman of the Huffington Post notes this event will likely have a chilling effect on our ability to have access to our Federal Elected officials.
Thirty years ago, there was no such thing as security on Capitol Hill or for members. Members of the public were free to roam the halls, and police presence was practically invisible. There were no barricades around the grounds, and even the leadership rarely had any form of protection.
The Hill was the very model of the People’s Place — and in that respect it was an inspirational symbol of our democracy.
Congress began to close in on itself in 1983. A bomb explosion outside the Senate chamber engendered the installation of magnatometers; in 1998 a gunman shot two Capitol Police in an attack in the House. The result was a system of careful monitoring of all visitors and the extension of police protection to all members of the leadership. The 9/11 attacks led to the erection of barricades and new defense perimeters around the grounds; new inspection procedures were initiated after an anthrax attack in 2003 on the offices of then-Democratic leader Tom Daschle’s office.
The construction of a new Visitor Center now means that the public can only enter through a secure facility and can only walk the halls in tour groups.
The contentious Town Hall meetings that dominated the 2009 Health Care debate may soon be a thing of the past. I reported on one held by Rep. Steve Cohen in August of 2009. The truth of the matter is, even though there were Sheriff Deputies in attendance, the presence of law enforcement would not have deterred someone from acting, particularly in this particular venue. There were so many people that anything could have happened. Thankfully, it didn’t.
Considering the already difficult challenges in selecting a venue for such events, and the logistics often involved in supporting these events, throwing what would likely be a security nightmare into the mix is a recipe for the end of Town Halls period.
I’ve been working, organizing, and providing technical support for public events since the late 90’s and I can tell you, even small, low budget affairs have a great deal of planning involved. Adding another layer of planning by ramping up security at these events will make them fewer and farther between. The added expense, the added planning and the increased anxiety combined have the consequence of us being less personally connected to a government that we’re already fairly disconnected from in the first place.
This will have a chilling, long-term effect on our Republic.
While I understand the outrage felt on both the left and the right concerning this event, I would note that pointing fingers in either direction only increases the rancor rather than solving the problem. The ultimate problem is that we the people are not adequately considering the impact our rhetoric and policies have on our lives beneath the surface. Everything we do and say has deep consequences, the result of which may not be felt for years. While those consequences may not be immediately known at the time, there are some things that we can immediately know.
Neither civility, nor rancor are accidents. Both are intentional acts. Fighting rancor with rancor creates a rhetorical arms race. Rewarding rancor with wall-to-wall coverage gives legitimacy to that rancor despite the consequences it might have on society. Using that rancor to pursue policies that reduce an individuals ability to thrive in society creates a double whammy that hastens the decline of civility.
It is a vicious cycle.
Until we as a nation recognize this, we will be held captive by our own inability or unwillingness to recognize our faults and deal with our problems like adults, the consequence of which will be felt for generations to come.