When the news broke on Saturday morning of the mass shooting of citizens in Tucson at a political "meet and greet" held, ironically, at a Safeway Plaza, we immediately called our son to see if he was all right. Fortunately, he was safely ensconced in his apartment on the other side of town. He, too, was horrified by what was being reported. For the rest of the day we all were, like millions of Americans, firmly rooted in front of our televisions, laptops open, searching for clues to what would become in very short order a tragic tale of political assassination in America, one fueled by a divided cultural political surround that during the past year or so made the phrase "I'm from Arizona" akin to admitting that you voluntarily reside in a hellish political cauldron where all the citizens are armed and dangerous, illegal immigrants wonder headless in the Sonoran desert, Christian zealots call for a holy war against nonbelievers and college professors, and the prisons are run as for-profit enterprises. It is as if the Wild West morphed into America's version of what a friend of mine who studies violent extremism in the Middle East calls "Arizonistan." All that was missing were the daily explosions and the gunfire.
On Saturday that gunfire erupted. As we all know by now, a lone shooter armed with a Glock semi-automatic pistol took the lives of six of our fellow citizens--including a 9 year-old child and a sitting federal judge--and wounded 14 others, including Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, a moderate Democrat. As of this writing, Giffords is still with us, and doctors are guarded but optimistic about her prognosis, given that they had to cut away half of her skull just to keep her alive. The shooter, Jared Loughner, who some have described as "troubled," is in jail refusing to talk about what he did, happily proclaiming his Fifth Amendment rights. Although it is early in the investigation, it appears that he planned the assassination attempt well in advance.
He may have been a member of an extreme rightwing political group, or just a fan of their website. Either way, he was no doubt a politically-oriented young man who had even attended a rally for Giffords back in 2007, a person, like the rest of us, who is everyday subjected to a constant stream of what Pima County Sheriff Dupnik rightly called "vitriol." Whether that surround played a part in spurring on this obviously unbalanced individual to an act of political violence is not yet known. But reasonable people everywhere are pretty sure it did. How could it not? When you have a former Vice-Presidential candidate targeting Representative Giffords on her website and right wing talk show hosts calling for her "elimination." As Giffords herself put it only months ago:
"We're on Sarah Palin's targeted list . . . Crosshairs of a gunsight over our district. When people do that, they've got to realize there's consequences."
And for Congresswoman Giffords, there were consequences.
Admittedly, Arizona can seem a strange place. We are a state governed by a woman, Jan Brewer, who not only sees our desert populated by headless illegals, but who also signs into a law a bill that makes carrying a concealed weapon (such as a Glock) without a permit or a background check (as was the case with Loughner) legal, on the principle, as Brewer put it, of "defending liberty."
Arizona is also a place where the state legislature, described last summer by Ken Silverstein in Harper's , is "composed almost entirely of dimwits, racists, and cranks." This is a state legislature that considers it wisdom to sell off the state capitol buildings, close public parks and rest stops, and downsize government services just to get through another dismal budget year caused, mostly, by their own failure to raise revenues while cutting taxes to the lowest in the United States, that, combined with the recent economic disaster, robbed our already corrupt mortgage-lending and housing-based economy of its big fraudulent bubble.
But it is not just Arizona, or the hot political cauldron here, that should cause pause to any decent citizen of these United States. The airwaves and the Internet do not respect borders. And the hate speech that passes as political posturing and ad campaigns for would-be elected officials has been called on its role in this tragedy. It's not just an "Arizona tragedy," but an American one. And it will require a national effort to combat the vitriolic rhetoric that currently dominates our democracy. As Timothy Egan sums it:
"The good news is that already, in just a few days time, this kind of talk from Beck, Palin and Angle is now being seen for what it really is -- something not to be touched by fair citizens or ambitious politicians. And the long-overdue revulsion is because such poisons -- death threats in place of reasoned argument, fetishizing of guns, glib talk of "taking someone out" -- were used so carelessly, as if they didn't matter.
Well, they do matter. Even if the gunman's motives are never truly known, the splattering of so much innocent blood on a Saturday morning gives a nation as fractious as ours a chance to think about what happens when words are used as weapons, and weapons are used in place of words."
Not everyone agrees, of course. That's the way it is in a democracy. That is how it should be in a country that guarantees the freedom of speech to all of us. So it is that I would never deny to columnist Jack Shafer his right to post in Slate this morning these views:
"Our spirited political discourse, complete with name-calling, vilification--and, yes, violent imagery--is a good thing. Better that angry people unload their fury in public than let it fester and turn septic in private. The wicked direction the American debate often takes is not a sign of danger but of freedom. And I'll punch out the lights of anybody who tries to take it away from me."
That freedom also comes with a responsibility. That responsibility is to use free speech to foster civil debate, discourse, and deportment. It is a responsibility that comes with an assumption--admittedly a large one--that my freedom to speak ends at your nose. Which is why Mr. Shafer's argument is fine (although I disagree with it) right up until that last sentence, where he threatens to "knock my lights out." He can say it. But if he acts on it, that action is something we, in the United States, call assault. It's a crime.
Furthermore, his speech would be evidence admissible in a court of law. That's premonition. That's intent.
Replace Shafer's angry fist with Loughner's angry gun and the same reasoning applies.
So while Mr. Shafer and others of his ilk want to make this tragedy and the talk that preceded it about their freedoms to say anything they damn well want to say, there are those of us, myself included, who say "sorry, pal, that's not how a civil discourse works." If you threaten violence and someone else, however deranged or lunatic they may be, acts on it and because of it, that act implicates you . And you, my friend, must be held accountable for it.