The shooting of Arizona Democratic Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, in a rampage that claimed six lives Saturday, shook the souls of everyone who serves the public in this say-anything era.
That’s because what happened in Tucson could happen anywhere, at any time -– and because the devolution in discourse in America in recent years might just make it more likely to happen.
It’s unfair to blame what happened in Arizona on any one movement. Even back when the tea party was something for the history books, a small but growing number of politicians and blabbermouths posing as journalists were, more and more and year by year, demonizing those with whom they disagreed.
But the rhetoric has reached a crescendo in the Obama years.
For example, Rep. Alan Grayson, D-Fla., in 2009 stood on the House floor and said during a discussion on health care reform: "Republicans want you to die quickly."
And just last year, Fox News commentator Glenn Beck told his audience that "violence is the wrong way to go.” But then he asked his viewers: "You'd pick up a gun? Have you ever thought of that?" Pointing to pictures of President Obama and then-House speaker Nancy Pelosi, Beck added, without any evidence, “These people have.”
Politicians and pundits say things like that, no doubt, in hopes of winning votes or rating points or Web hits. But in doing so, they make unhinged anger seem cool.
Not surprisingly, the unhinged respond. Politicians on both sides of the political spectrum report receiving more and more threats in recent years –- and they were not alone.
Twice in the past two years –- and for the first time in 28 years as a professional journalist -– I’ve received threats that I had to report to federal authorities. One was a vague threat to the life of a politician. The other was a promise that I would soon be killed.
That was an idle threat, obviously enough, as most of them are. But it made me worry that it was only a matter of time before all the incendiary indignation inspired a madman.
That may be what happened in Arizona on Saturday. The alleged shooter, Jared Lee Loughner, seems to be a 22-year-old lost soul of no political philosophy but of insane imagination. For proof, note this quote from an Internet video he posted Dec. 15: “I can’t trust the current government because of the ratifications: the government is implying mind control and brainwash of the people by controlling grammar.”
It should be no surprise that someone who thinks that way would turn to violence.
But the questions America now faces are: Is the way we talk about politics now making violence more likely? And are we wrecking our own politics?
Clarence W. Dupnik, the Pima County sheriff investigating the Arizona shootings, thinks so. And he said at a news conference Saturday that the nation should “do a little soul-searching.”
“It’s not unusual for all public officials to get threats constantly, myself included,” Sheriff Dupnik said. “That’s the sad thing about what’s going on in America: pretty soon we’re not going to be able to find reasonable, decent people willing to subject themselves to serve in public office.”