The Consequences of Inflamed Rhetoric

The Consequences of Inflamed Rhetoric

By now, I’m sure you’ve heard about what happened in Arizona over the weekend. In case you’ve managed to avoid the news for the past few days, though, Rep. Gabrielle “Gabby” Giffords (D-Arizona), U.S. District Judge John Roll, and eighteen others were shot by a lone gunman at a “Congress on your Corner” event held by Rep. Giffords.

Miraculously, she survived and is in critical condition; Judge Roll and five others, including nine-year-old Christina Taylor Green, weren’t so lucky. The shooter was caught, and it’s largely an open-and-shut case from what I’ve seen in the news; after all, the shooter, Jared Loughner, was tackled as he was trying to leave the scene.

While the incident itself is largely over except for the memorial services later this week, the repercussions will echo for the next several weeks, if not months. Public opinion is divided over whether Loughner was just crazy or if the violent rhetoric coming from the far-right caused the attack, but in any case, it’s clear that things won’t quite be the same following the attacks.

For Everyone’s Sake, We Need to Tone It Down
Though public opinion is divided on the cause of the attacks, I tend to think the inflamed rhetoric plays at least some of a role in it. After all, we only need to remember that Sarah Palin released the map last year with crosshairs over several Districts, including Giffords’. While it is related to the votes on health care reform, this map is rightfully at the center of the debate on whether rhetoric played a role.

On top of this, back during the campaign, Sharron Angle of Nevada, the Republican who tried and failed to unseat Senator Harry Reid, spoke of “Second Amendment remedies” when ballots fail to give the change people want. Even more than the map, this seems like something that should be akin to shouting “fire” in a crowded theatre.

Though I am an emphatic supporter of the First Amendment to the Constitution, explicitly encouraging violence against our duly-elected leaders should not be allowed. Though messages like Angle’s and Palin’s may sound like innocent political rhetoric, ex-Rep. Steve Driehaus (D- Ohio) pretty much hit the nail on the head when he said last year

“But it’s not about what he intended it’s about how the least rational person in my district takes it. We run into some crazy people in this line of work.”

That’s exactly why we need to be extremely careful when we use any sort of angry rhetoric against the other side. Placing crosshairs on a map or calling someone a dead man as Rep. John Boehner did to Mr. Driehaus that this quote is in response to may well be taken as the mere mudslinging and campaign grandstanding that politicians love to do to each other by a normal, rational adult. However, all it takes is one Jared Loughner to instantly make the bloody consequences of such speech very real.

More than almost any other type of speech, political speech demands special protections and guarantees under the First Amendment; the ability to speak freely on the issues of the day is absolutely fundamental to American democracy. However, there must be reasonable limits to protect against a repeat of the Arizona massacre. Such restrictions aren’t unprecedented, either. Merely wishing harm on the current or a former President of the United States in a public forum is likely to attract the attention of the Secret Service, for instance.

Granted, the logistics of protecting a sitting President, and especially a former one, are almost certainly easier and less expensive than doing so for every Senator and Representative, but this may be something that the government should look into in the wake of the events in Arizona. Of course, I’m no expert on funding complex programs (even among the people who design these things, who is?), but perhaps spreading cost/protective resources among Federal, State, and local authorities would be the way to do it.

Above all, the access of the people to their elected officials must be preserved. Appropriate measures to protect these officials should be taken, but if we simply opt to hide our Senators and Representatives away from the people, that will signify more than just a reaction to the massacre. It will mean that fear has won in America, and it will mean that one individual will have tarnished our proud democratic tradition forever.

We need to do more to ensure that the tragedy in Arizona doesn’t happen again, and toning down the rhetoric is a start. Let’s face it: when the head of Fox News, Roger Ailes, tells his anchors to tone it down, you know it’s bad. Political speech is as important as ever, but encouraging violence against politicians is something that we do not need in America.