Sunday, January 9, 2011

Consequences of words

UPDATED 1/10/11

Words have consequences. Let's not pretend otherwise.

The finger-pointing and denials of responsibility in the Arizona shootings have begun and will continue ad nauseam, ad infinitum.

To deny that there exists a "toxic environment" that encourages unhinged people to act out their feelings of rage and powerlessness with violence is not rational. Most of the blame for this shooting lies with the shooter, but he did not act in a vacuum -- it is reasonable to assume that he was influenced by commentaries using terms like "Second Amendment remedies" and images of cross-hairs. To claim that statements suggesting violent responses to our government bear no responsibility for this act is simply wrong.

This illustrates why we've restricted some types of comment on the Post Register's online forum, PostTalk. We engage in journalism, not speech of the "fire in the theater" variety. It's too easy to say "the government" is somehow inherently evil -- it overlooks the fact that the government is nothing more than what we, the people, create, and it's staffed by our neighbors and friends.

Unfortunately, there is more than a handful of people who believe as the person who posted this today on PostTalk: "Government authorities are wanting people to 'tone down' the rhetoric which is their way of saying they want citizens to obey the government." That view, that government is the enemy, has been around forever, but it is being given greater voice than ever, and some of the more extreme adherents to that perspective want to take matters into their own hands.

There's plenty of irresponsibility to go around but on this one, frankly, the right needs to shoulder most of the blame. (I'm willing to change my view if someone can provide evidence that high-profile members of the left have used gun metaphors in their arguments, and point to left-wingers who have acted on it.) No, Sarah Palin didn't want to encourage a slaughter when she used cross-hairs to "target" Gabrielle Giffords' district. I wonder, however, about Sharon Angle's true intent when she referred to "Second Amendment remedies" during her campaign for Harry Reid's seat. Regardless of the intent, high-profile people bear a moral responsibility to understand that there are unstable people walking around with guns.

Arguing that someone's loose talk wasn't intended to incite violence isn't enough. It's easy for someone like Palin to say that no rational person could have interpreted her "cross-hairs" references as encouragement to shoot Giffords. But we're not dealing with rational people, are we? It takes an inarticulate and weak-minded person to resort to violent metaphors when expressing opposition to our elected leaders.

Having met a good share of politicians in my career, I am convinced that most of them are sincere people wanting to do the right thing. Too many of them get caught up in the sense of entitlement and power that seems to come with getting elected to something, but very few on the left, right or center are the cynical narcissists that cable TV and radio commentators would have you believe. Most people who voted for and against the health care legislation, for example, were acting out of conscience. They don't deserve to be vilified for doing what they believe in. They certainly don't deserve to be shot down in the street.

I don't know about anyone else, but I find this shooting downright scary. We can be grateful the shooter apparently didn't have access to a rental truck and lots of fertilizer.

UPDATE: A PostTalk poster (in fairness, the same one I quote in the body of my original post) reminds me that candidate Barack Obama once said this: “If they bring a knife to the fight, we bring a gun. Because from what I understand folks in Philly like a good brawl. I’ve seen Eagles fans.”

So there's my requested example of a violent metaphor coming from the left. While the right remains clearly more willing to resort to this kind of language, it's good to be reminded that it's all too common from both sides. For the record, here was the Republican National Committee's response to Obama's statement: “Why is Barack Obama so negative? In the last 24 hours, he’s completely abandoned his campaign’s call for ‘new politics,’ equating the election to a ‘brawl’ and promising to ‘bring a gun'."

It would be helpful if the RNC would issue similar statements when members of its party step out of line on this issue.

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