In the wake of today’s tragic shooting at Rep. Gabrielle Giffords’ event in Tucson, I’m going to do something I rarely do; defend Sarah Palin. Palin is merely the example I heard today, but really I’m defending everyone who uses charged rhetoric in campaigns. speeches and so on. On the weekend edition of NPR’s “All Things Considered” host Guy Raz was speaking to a couple of Arizona politicians about the shooting and mentioned a Sarah Palin PAC poster from the last election. The poster showed crosshairs on the districts of 20 of Democrats that were targeted for defeat. You may also remember that she took heat for a line in a speech that said, “Don’t retreat; reload.” Suddenly people on the left were clamoring about her inciting violence and so forth. Rhetoric like this isn’t unusual and a Republican using a gun metaphor is almost required for credibility. Just as I have cautioned against blaming Islam for 9/11 simply because the hijackers were Muslim, we cannot say that speeches using gun references are responsible for people committing murder. Mark David Chapman was carrying a copy of Catcher in the Rye when he shot John Lennon. Was that J.D. Salinger’s fault? No. I read Catcher in the Rye in high school. The only violent feelings I had were toward Holden Caulfield because all he did was complain for 224 pages.
People have an unusual tendency to place blame everywhere but where it belongs. I’ve always been dumbfounded by that. For instance, suppose two people are married. Let’s say the husband cheats on his wife. Who’s to blame. I think most people would say the husband. For some reason the wife is more likely to blame the other woman. In the same way people are bringing up the charged rhetoric of politicians instead of simply blaming the guy who shot a bunch of people. It wasn’t a poster or a campaign speech. Rational people have the ability to know that crosshairs on map aren’t implying that we kill people.
It is perhaps true that we need to step back and look at the tone political discussion has taken in this country. The 2008 election gave birth to anger in political discussion that I don’t remember in my lifetime. Wild accusations have always been thrown around in politics. I remember seeing presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin in a Daily Show interview where she talked about an election where one candidate said incest would run rampant in the White House if his opponent was elected. What I don’t remember being common is those accusations being taken so seriously. People who I would consider intelligent, rational people bought into rumors that Pres. Obama wasn’t born in the U.S. or was an Arab or Muslim. My reaction was not only, who cares if he is an Arab or Muslim, but what makes you think it’s true. My parents had always told me that when John Kennedy was elected people were frightened because he was Catholic. Rumors flew around that the Pope was going to run the country. I always thought they were exaggerating. I mean who’s really afraid of Catholics. Now, I get it.
It only got worse during the healthcare debate. Town hall meetings were thrown into chaos by angry, screaming, citizens. I’d imagine HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius regretted leaving the relative comfort of the Kansas Governor’s Mansion for that job. During the healthcare battle misinformation was spread wholesale, just like the 2008 election. Death panels and healthcare rationing dominated the debate. What was most frightening about all of it was the anger that overflowed from the bill’s opponents.
In Kansas, we have learned to deal with irrational anger regularly. Fred Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church call Kansas home. You may know them from their protests of military funerals. Long before that they have been protesting anything they can remotely (even illogically) connect to support of homosexuality. You have to understand how extreme these people are. In the ninth grade, my junior high band director took a number of us to a University of Kansas Symphony concert. He was an extremely devout Christian who didn’t hide it. When we arrived at the Lied Center, people were holding signs outside the door. He told us to just walk by and ignore them. This man was no friend of the homosexual movement, but he believed they were way over the line. What scared me about people at those town halls was that they just screamed and refused to listen to any defense of the bill. That’s the way people at the Westboro Baptist Church respond when anyone questions them. They scream and yell so loud they cannot possibly hear the people talking to them. That way they don’t have to hear anything that might challenge their view. That attitude is what is really wrong with the public discussion in our country.
The American public needs to remember that none of our elected officials are truly out to destroy our country. If we paid close attention to what they are doing, we would see when they are being truthful or misleading. We get the leadership that we demand. If no one pays attention, and we are not vocal about what we believe, politicians will feed us misleading catchphrases and Congress will do whatever they want. If we are irrational and angry, Congress will write us off as the fringe of public opinion. We have to make a real case for what we believe, but do it in a civil manner.
In the end, it is unlikely much could have been done to prevent today’s shooting. Gun control laws could be tightened, threats can be investigated, but little can be done to take into account the act of a madman. A person who has decided that they want to kill will find a way. Civil discussion needs to be reinstated not only to our elected officials but to the American public. Only then will we discourage senseless acts of violence like the shooting today.