What you give up in 140 Characters or Less: Reflections on the Tucson Shooting and the Compromised Immune System of our Democracy

Early on the day of the shooting in Tucson in which 22-year-old Jared Lee Loughner shot 19 people, wounding Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and killing Federal Judge Judge John McCarthy Roll and five others, including a young girl, I posted two tweets in response.

Celebrated ignorance in the party, pundits & media culture responsible http://ow.ly/3Axmk –Palin got 1 of 20 in shooting: http://ow.ly/3AxlO

RT @aurosan: Guess what tweet @SarahPalinUSA just deleted? Here’s your answer: http://bit.ly/hPV95O

This blog exists because sometimes 140 characters “can’t handle the truth.” I’m writing this to provide context and nuance, something that is hard to come by on Facebook & Twitter. I am also writing this as an apology for not providing those very things in the wake of a complex, heated and deeply sensitive matter. In sending out messages that could fit on a bumper sticker, I’m implicated in the “culture responsible” that I was criticizing in the first place.  I hope that this will aid in explaining and expounding upon and retreating from in some ways my words.

In a press conference held hours after the massacre in Arizona, Pima County Sheriff Clarence W. Dupnick targeted vitriolic speech as a factor in Saturday’s shooting. Reflecting further on the “horrendous, horrendous senseless unbelievable crime,” Dupnik aimed his ire:

“And today I want to tell you that I hope that all Americans are saddened and as shocked as we are. And I hope that some of them or most of them are as angry as I am and as a lot of us are. And I think it’s time as a country that we need to do a little soul searching. Because it’s the vitriolic rhetoric that we hear day in and day out from people in the radio business and some people in the tv business, and what we see on tv and how our youngsters are being raised. And I think it’s time that we do a little soul searching.

When you look at unbalanced people, how they respond to the vitriol that comes out of certain mouths about tearing down the government. The anger, the hatred, the bigotry that goes on in this country is getting to be outrageous. And, unfortunately, Arizona I think has become sort of the capital. We have become the Mecca for prejudice and bigotry. It’s not unusual for all public officials to get threats constantly, myself included. And that‘s the sad thing of what’s going on in America. Pretty soon, we’re not going to be able to find reasonable, decent people who are willing to subject themselves to serve in public office… Let me say one thing, because people tend to pooh-pooh this business about all the vitriol that we hear inflaming the American public by people who make a living off of doing that. That may be free speech, but it’s not without consequences.”

Giffords’s fellow Arizona congressman, Republican Jeff Flake, recalled that she was unfazed after her Tucson office had been targeted by vandals who broke a window on the eve of last year’s health care vote. And it had been reported that in 2009, Judge Roll and his wife received 24-hour protection for at least a month after receiving death threats after certifying a multimillion-dollar lawsuit illegal immigrants had filed against an Arizona rancher.

During an interview with MSNBC after her office was vandalized, Giffords noted that her district was on Sarah Palin’s “crosshairs” list of targeted congressional races. Giffords was quoted saying:

“I think it’s important for all leaders – not just leaders of the Republican Party or the Democratic Party – to say, look, we can’t stand for this – we’re on Sarah Palin’s targeted list, but the thing is that the way that she has it depicted has the cross-hairs of a gun sight over our district. When people do that, they’ve got to realize there’s consequences to that action.”-Rep. Giffords, Mar. 25, 2010

This was the context for my words. This is what I had received and processed and this is what I spoke from when I should have presented and allowed their words to stand on their own.  That’s where I was coming from at the time; here’s where I am and am going…

We’ve since learned that Loughner was a wild card, a registered Independent with Libertarian, Conservative AND Liberal expressions; a young man with as countless of influences and allegiances as anyone of us. While no one knows for sure what drove Jared Loughner to commit the act, we do know that the toxic political discourse in this country today– candidates talking about “second amendment remedies,” news networks featuring anti-government conspiracy theorists, and national political figures like Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin describing themselves as “progressive hunters” and urging followers to “reload”– lays the groundwork for this kind of violence.  This is the argument I am making.  Some of you will disagree vehemently and some will argue it’s unknowable and therefore irrelevant.

I think when a lot of people talk about, “well, was this political or was he just crazy?”– that’s a false dichotomy. The climate of incitement breaks out a lot like the way an epidemic disease breaks out. When an epidemic break out, it’s the weak, the old, unhealthy that are the people who are carried off. In a similar sense when you have a climate of incitement, it’s people who are pretty nutty who actually shoot someone. It doesn’t mean these two things are unrelated.  In fact, mental illness experts say that, “we should be asking whether the political climate helped trigger the shooting.” One leading expert continued in The Washington Post regarding Loughner, “We know the manifestation of mental illness is affected by cultural factors. One’s cultural context does effect people’s thinking and particularly their delusions. It gives some content and shape to their delusions.”

This “epidemic” analogy and this framework are what bring me to talking about things like Sarah Palin’s metaphoric “targeting” with literal cross-hairs of 20 Democratic congress people prior to mid-term elections, or the most noted call to violence, stemming from the right last year, Nevada Senate candidate Sharron Angle’s reference to “2nd Ammendment remedies” for the Tea Party’s grievances, or perhaps closer to home, Gifford’s opponent, Jesse Kelly’s fundraiser where you could “Get on Target for Victory in November and Help remove Gabrielle Giffords from office. Shoot a fully automatic M-16 with Jesse Kelly.”

We do not know the shooter’s motives. We have vague and contradictory specifics of his politics. We KNOW neither arose in a vacuum, and it’s hard to imagine they will not shape our politics moving forward.  The truth is that this is coming on the heels of over 18 months of a rising tide of violent political rhetoric/incitement. So I don’t think anybody in the country who has paid an ounce of attention, anywhere on the political spectrum, can say, “Wow, where did that come from? We’re shocked!” It’s of course shocking on an emotional level, but not entirely unexpected in the climate.

Mike Hellon, a former chairman of the Arizona Republican Party recognizes that there is a need for politicians to grow more circumspect. “In the campaign here [in Tucson] on the Republican side, they were talking about taking [Giffords] out,” Hellon says. “A rational person knows what that means, but you don’t know how an irrational person will act.”

The leader of the Tea Party movement in Tucson unequivocally denounced what happened, BUT also said she didn’t think there was any need for a pulling back of rhetoric or changing the nature of political speech that we have. And when you take that after what i just mentioned before about this fund-raiser where you go and get excited about getting rid of Gabby Giffords by firing off an m-16 with her opponent, that tells you that we probably haven’t seen the end of rhetoric that really has no place in our politics.

It’s important that I say, yes, there have been other references to violence as political metaphor on the Democratic side as well. Even President Obama at a Philadelphia fundraiser, to counter Republican attacks said, “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.” On the other hand, I think we would do a disservice to the moment to pretend that this kind of language, these kinds of appeals to violent political rhetoric, have been the same on both sides of the aisle the last two years. It simply hasn’t. It has been OVER-overwhelmingly on the far right and has crossed the line into the realms of hysteria at moments.

Sadly enough, prior to culminating in Loughner’s attempted massacre, we already saw this in fruition earlier in 2010. This very connection of political fear-mongering to actual acts of violence was demonstrated in Glenn Beck’s recent ties for inciting violence against the Tides Foundation. Specifically, his dozens of comments attacking the Tides Foundation were linked to the attempt by a heavily-armed man to assassinate employees at the San Francisco-based foundation, which funds environmental, human rights, and other progressive projects. The attack in July was thwarted in a shoot-out with police in which, thankfully, only two officers were wounded.

Since then, alleged attacker Byron Williams has said in jailhouse interviews that he wanted to “start a revolution.” He says Beck was not the direct cause of his turning violent. But he does say: “I would have never started watching Fox News if it wasn’t for the fact that Beck was on there. And it was the things that he did, it was the things he exposed that blew my mind.”

None of this seems to have turned Beck away from rhetoric that implies violence. At various times, Beck has referred to Tides as “bullies” and “thugs” whose mission is to “warp your children’s brains and make sure they know how evil capitalism is.” More recently, Beck (who describes himself as a “progressive hunter”) has warned the foundation “I’m coming for you.”  (Read more in the full article in the Christian Science Monitor).

Furthermore, none of the events in Arizona have turned Palin away from rhetoric that implies violence.  The strategic release of her video in which she sought to contain a debate that had linked her— unfairly, she argued— with the assassination attempt, before President Obama traveled to Arizona for the memorial service, shows her self-serving political ends. In the video, referring to criticism of her “crosshairs” map as a “blood libel,” Palin misuses the term in reference to her “persecution” over the Giffords’s attack (Giffords is Jewish and “blood libel” historically refers to the accusation that Jews murder Christian babies). Palin also turned to the words of former President Ronald Reagan, saying that society should not be blamed for the acts of an individual… especially anyone who’s a “law-abiding citizen” just “respectfully exercising” their “First Amendment rights” to freely exercise their religious faith or speak or peaceably assemble or publish or petition their government for redress of their grievances. Clearly, it’s shown that society does play a major role, but say we humor her, if that’s the case, why was Sarah Palin so opposed to the law-abiding citizens of New York City who maybe wanted to freely exercise their religious faith and maybe play some basketball and foster interfaith activities in Lower Manhattan? Guess that wasn’t as convenient for her.

Matthew Dowd, a former political adviser to President George W. Bush, said that the tone of Mrs. Palin’s message was not appropriate for the moment of national grief and that she had missed an opportunity to be seen as a leader. “Sarah Palin seems trapped in a world that is all about confrontation and bravado. When the country seeks comforting and consensus, she offers conflict and confrontation.”

Earlier in the week, Glenn Beck sent Palin an email of “concern,” stating that she should get “protection” because an attempt on her life could “bring the republic down.” You can find his call against violence on his website, conveniently located next to the publicity photo of him brandishing a handgun of his own. I’m not kidding. In response, Palin wrote Beck back, and he read a portion of her email over his radio show in which she said, “I hate violence. I hate war. Our children will not have peace if politicos just capitalize on this to succeed in portraying anyone as inciting terror and violence. Thanks for all you do to send the message of truth and love and God as the answer.”

Beck and Palin’s “paling” around, to use her phraseology, is the fueling the “Christian persecution” meme that has given Palin strength since her vice-presidential run in 2008. Many Americans believe they are persecuted for believing in Jesus, but Beck took that belief to a new low. By equating the potential for an attack on Sarah Palin as an event that would “bring the republic down,” Beck plays into the martyrdom fantasy he promotes daily. It is this type of bombastic hyperbole that has the nation in mourning.

First you isolate, and then you integrate. We look at stories in context. We try to see the whole. This didn’t happen in a vacuum. What are the situations and environments that allow this kind of hate and violence to grow? This is my context. This is where I’m coming from. Here’s where I’ve landed. This brilliant little piece in The American Scene makes the most sound and consequential argument that offers that far above tone, the issue in our politics is Substance.

Since Barack Obama took office, prominent voices on the right have called him an ally of Islamist radicals in their Grand Jihad against America, a radical Kenyan anti-colonialist, a man who pals around with terrorists and used a financial crisis to deliberately weaken America, an usurper who was born abroad and isn’t even eligible to be president, a guy who has somehow made it so that it’s okay for black kids to beat up white kids on buses, etc. I haven’t even touched on the conspiracy theories of Glenn Beck. The birthers excepted, the people making these chargers are celebrated by movement conservatives – they’re given book deals, awards, and speaking engagements.

If all of these charges were true, a radicalized citizenry would be an appropriate response. But even the conservatives who defend Palin, Beck, Limbaugh, D’Souza, McCarthy, and so many others don’t behave as if they believe all the nonsense they assert. The strongest case against these people isn’t that their rhetoric inspires political violence. It’s that they frequently utter indefensible nonsense. The problem isn’t their tone. It’s that the substance of what they’re saying is so blinkered that it isn’t even taken seriously by their ideological allies (even if they’re too cowardly, mercenary or team driven to admit as much).

They’re in a tough spot these days partly because it’s impossible for them to mount the defense of their rhetoric that is true: “I am a frivolous person, and I don’t choose my words based on their meaning. Rather, I behave like the worst caricature of a politician. If you think my rhetoric logically implies that people should behave violently, you’re mistaken – neither my audience nor my peers in the conservative movement are engaged in a logical enterprise, and it’s unfair of you to imply that people take what I say so seriously that I can be blamed for a real world event. Don’t you see that this is all a big game? This is how politics works. Stop pretending you’re not in on the joke.”

How can we not only stop conflict, but also be a part of bringing about a just community that displays the positive presence of peace? We start with ourselves. Charlie Rose commented on the eve of the President’s upcoming speech at the Tucson memorial service saying, “These moments do not come often, and they are defining. This is also a time to demand more from all of us, to ask the tough questions about guns, values, and angry rhetoric. It is a time, once again, to ask not what the country can do for us, but what we can do for the country.” This horrible tragedy must now become an important American moment. We must honor this tragic event and Gabby’s national service by reflecting deeply on how we speak to and about one another, and how we create environments that help peace grow– or allow violence and hatred to enter. It is that time– the time to ask, “what now?” I’ll conclude with a suggestion of “what now” from Arianna Huffington’s “soul searching” op-ed summary:

“A little soul searching.” That is what Clarence Dupnik, the Sheriff of Pima County — and good friend of both Congresswoman Giffords and Judge John Roll — said our country needs to engage in.

And while we don’t know all the facts yet and the story is still unfolding, we know enough to know that we need more than a little soul searching.

The fact that the gunman is clearly mentally unbalanced does not absolve us of the responsibility to consider the atmosphere in which the shootings occurred. “Shootings of political figures are by definition ‘political,'” writes James Fallows. “That’s how the target came to public notice; it is why we say ‘assassination’ rather than plain murder.”

And the atmosphere in which this horrible tragedy was born, nurtured, and carried to its wretched fruition is toxic. Of course, there are always going to be unbalanced people, just as there are always going to be viruses in our environment — but what most determines whether those viruses make us sick is the strength of our immune system. When it is stressed and compromised, infections can easily take hold.

And there is no doubt that our collective immune system is worn down, making us more susceptible to the kind of infection that turned that Arizona parking lot into a killing field. While there has never been a golden age in our democracy’s history, there have been many times in which our national immune system was much stronger.

“The press is our immune system,” Jon Stewart said during his now-more-prescient-than-ever Rally to Restore Sanity. That’s true, but I’d take it a step further: we are all the immune system of our democracy.

And this calamity should serve as a wake-up call that we need to bring more urgency to strengthening it. It’s very easy, as we’ve seen over the last few years, to ignore the toxicity — partly because we’re swimming in it. But it’s time to recognize the obvious: our society is in danger of coming apart at the seams — from our overheated political rhetoric and crumbling infrastructure to our rising poverty and shrinking middle class.

This is not a call for passionate debate to come to a halt. But there is a huge difference between passionately disagreeing with your opponents and crudely demonizing them, between considering them as adversaries to be engaged and treating them as enemies to be targeted.

“The House of Representatives has already said they’re not going to vote on repealing the health care law now,” said Sen. Lamar Alexander on Sunday. “So we need to stop, pause, and reflect.” He then added: “But then I think we’re back to business.”

Well, not so fast. This weekend’s atrocity shouldn’t simply be a crash on the side of the road that delays us for a few minutes before we put it in the rear-view mirror — this should be a moment that changes the direction we’re traveling in. The consequences of this should be more than simply a week’s delay of the vote on the “Repealing the Job-Killing Health Care Law Act.” We need to recognize what has happened to our democracy and renew our efforts to fix it.

Today’s moment of silence was poignant, and we are being urged to follow it by ratcheting down the tone of our political discourse. But that’s not enough. Along with raising the politeness level, we must also have a real conversation about what kind of country we want to live in, and take practical, concrete action to create it.

Rage, paranoia, and division are not the only possible responses to the very legitimate anger millions of Americans — on both sides of the political spectrum — are feeling at the state of the country and the state of their lives. And the Arizona shootings put a spotlight on the need to redirect that anger, frustration, and despair, and use them to take action, and make life better for those who need help. We can choose connection rather than division. Understanding rather than fear. Reaching out rather than turning away.

[continue reading HERE]

That’s it. If you made it to here, then perhaps you’re thinking my next post should be titled, “What you gain in 140 Characters.” Thank you for reading. Love & Respect

UPDATE:  Thankful for the President’s words & leadership:  http://ow.ly/3DDv4

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About matthewryanward

Cultural cataloguer of unoriginal thoughts – a magpie learner & reassembler, champion idealist, localist, recovering and struggling elitist, student of grace, procrastinator extraordinaire, debtor, polemical aggravator, wannabe adventurer based in Music City's eastside. ----------------------------------- ----------- "There were no formerly heroic times, and there was no formerly pure generation. There is no one here but us chickens, and so it has always been: a people busy and powerful, knowledgeable, ambivalent, important, fearful and self-aware; a people who scheme, promote, deceive and conquer; who pray for their loved ones, and long to flee misery and skip death. It is a weakening and discoloring idea that rustic people knew God personally once upon a time — or even knew selflessness or courage or literature — but that it is too late for us. In fact, the absolute is available to everyone in every age. There never was a more holy age than ours, and never a less." - Annie Dillard
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One Response to What you give up in 140 Characters or Less: Reflections on the Tucson Shooting and the Compromised Immune System of our Democracy

  1. Megan says:

    This makes complete sense. Thank you for sharing. The tweet is a tricky thing; it allows us to express our opinion on the fly in so few characters that it’s easy to find yourself misunderstood. Thanks for backing yourself up with reason and proof. So few people feel the need to do that these days, as your post so aptly points out.

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