Monday, January 10, 2011

Congresswoman Giffords, Political Violence, and the Meaning of Words

On Saturday, alleged shooter Jared Loughner pulled the trigger of a 9mm Glock and shot Congressman Gabrille Giffords (D-AZ) in the head. Loughner is responsible for this unspeakable act of political violence, and he should pay dearly for his crimes.

But, we as a society, should not be held blameless.

Loughner may have pulled the trigger, but we have created a political environment which nurtures lunatic, fringe nuts like him. Neither the right nor the left have a monopoly on vitriolic imagery or language: Both engage in over-the-top appeals to our baser instincts.

To wit, former Congressman Alan Grayson (D-FL) on Hardball in 2009:

“I have trouble listening to what [Dick Cheney] says sometimes, because of the blood that drips from his teeth while he’s talking…He’s just angry because the president doesn’t shoot old men in the face. But by the way, when he was done speaking, did he just then turn into a bat and fly away?”

And, recent Nevada Senate candidate Sharron Angle in January 2010:

“You know, our Founding Fathers, they put that Second Amendment in there for a good reason and that was for the people to protect themselves against a tyrannical government. And in fact Thomas Jefferson said it's good for a country to have a revolution every 20 years.

I hope that's not where we're going, but, you know, if this Congress keeps going the way it is, people are really looking toward those Second Amendment remedies and saying my goodness what can we do to turn this country around? I'll tell you the first thing we need to do is take Harry Reid out.”

The demonization of our political opponents, free speech advocates say, is part and parcel of American political history. I agree: After recently reading Ron Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton, I was reminded of the baseness and vileness of some political discourse during the early days of the Republic. The difference, of course, is the speed and rapidity with which such discourse can flood through the body politic today via the Internet, chat rooms, and Twitter. All of these tools make it not only easier for words of all kinds to reach audiences of all types, but it also allows those on the fringes of society easier access to one another, to better share their vile, contemptible beliefs and conspiracy theories. Worse still is the ease with which we can shut ourselves off from the ideas and opinions of those with whom we disagree, never allowing ourselves the opportunity to reexamine our beliefs and engage in an exchange of ideas.

Critics on the left quickly made the connection between Loughner’s actions and some of the violent anti-government language of the right, while some on the right have responded by denouncing the act and blaming the liberal media and the left. Tea Party Founder Judson Phillips remarked that “the left is coming and will hit us hard on this. We need to push back harder with the simple truth. The shooter was a liberal lunatic. Emphasis on both words.”

Others argue the claim that the facts simply do not bear out the conclusion that Loughner was motivated by violent political discourse. As Glenn Reynolds writes in today’s Wall Street Journal: “To be clear, if you're using this event to criticize the ‘rhetoric’ of Mrs. Palin or others with whom you disagree, then you're either: (a) asserting a connection between the "rhetoric" and the shooting, which based on evidence to date would be what we call a vicious lie; or (b) you're not, in which case you're just seizing on a tragedy to try to score unrelated political points, which is contemptible. Which is it?”

I will agree that making a direct causal link between political rhetoric and the actions of a lone, deranged gunman is a bit of a stretch. But it is also a stretch, I think, to say that words don’t matter, that they don’t have meaning, and that particular word choices don’t have consequences. Especially because many on the right consider themselves textualists or originalists in their approach to constitutional interpretation, this line of reasoning seems odd. According to proponents of textualism (most prominently, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia), the Constitution should be read in the context of the times in which it was written. This means, among other things, that the Second Amendment’s language concerning a well-regulated militia should be understood as a general right for individuals to keep and bear arms. The reason? Because a well-regulated militia in the 1780s essentially constituted average, regular folks who kept arms for hunting and protection, while also taking part in regular military drills to protect their communities from external threats.

I do not take issue with the textualist take on the Constitution. Indeed, if the words don’t have a particular meaning that remains constant throughout the ages, one wonders why have a Constitution at all. A Constitution is different than a law passed by a legislature: It is a compact across generations—and the words in their original form and meaning are the foundation of that contractual arrangement. Only in those areas where the meaning is vague or there is clear disagreement among the authors of the text should the court intervene and provide guidance.

One might reasonably conjecture, however, that if the Constitution’s exact wording is so important, then so are the words chosen and the tone taken in political discourse more broadly. If the wording of the Constitution has specific and clear consequences, why don’t we believe the same for that which we utter?

Is Sharron Angle or Sarah Palin (who infamously targeted Giffords with crosshairs in a fundraising appeal) responsible for Jared Loughner? In a causal sense, absolutely not: Only Jared Loughner is responsible for his deeds and actions. But what Palin, Angle, Grayson, and their ilk are responsible for is dehumanizing their political opponents, debasing political discourse, and creating an environment of general disrespect for those who try to serve the public good. As we become more and more careless in our words and callous toward one another, it should not surprise that some might take that callousness and lack of respect to the next level—especially in today’s age of instant communication and gratification that seems to put a premium on immediate action at the expense of deliberation.

At the end of the day, we have to decide what kind of political discourse we want. Do we want to foster an environment that acknowledges the humanity of our opponents, the legitimacy of their ideas, and the pursuit of the common ground? Or do we want a slash and burn, take no prisoners approach to politics that sees compromise as weakness and political opponents as enemies to be beaten into submission? It’s our choice and our responsibility to hold those in the public realm accountable for their actions and their words. Suppression of speech is not the answer, I will agree, but is it too much to ask our leaders to speak carefully and deliberately instead of recklessly and outrageously? To quote Abraham Lincoln’s First Inaugural Address:

“I am loath to close. We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

My prayers are with the Giffords family, the people of Tucson, and to everyone hurt or affected by this weekend’s tragedy. Let’s use this moment to ask all of us—on the left and the right—to appeal to “the better angels of our nature” instead of our baser instincts.

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