So, I'd hoped my first blog of 2011 would be an upbeat piece about the possibilities inherent in a new year. But the events of yesterday morning at a Safeway knocked all sense of happy new year out the window.
Like most people, I've been trying to find news updates about the shooting of Congresswoman Giffords and those who were with her. It's impossible to understand what was in the mind of the shooter, but the picture that is emerging is one of paranoid delusions and a significant amount of premeditation. Jared Loughner may well be a deranged individual actor like previous actors who shot Ronald Reagan or George Wallace. And legal responsibility rests with the shooter, not the people whose careless rhetoric creates an unstable atmosphere.
The sheriff in Pima County, Clarence Dupnik, made comments yesterday about how "vitriol and hatred" had become a part of our culture and that Arizona might be a centerpiece for such rhetoric. He did make clear that "unbalanced people" will react in ways that we don't expect.
Comments by Speaker Boehner and Senator McCain make Loughner out to be significantly abnormal. Boehner's comments referred to "an inhuman act". McCain said that Loughner was "a wicked person who has no sense of justice or compassion." Not that any of these leaders had ever met the shooter -- but to call him "other" makes clear that normal people aren't affected by harsh rhetoric. Megyn Kelly challenged Sherif Dupnik that he should focus on the facts of the case and that it's not the time or the place of a sheriff to critique rhetoric (but it's okay for a commentator/newsperson to opine!).
Commentators and politicians were trying to get the sheriff to back off his statement. Jon Kyl argued that such comments weren't the job of law enforcement officials. Sarah Palin's staff tried to argue that the bulls-eyes on her election map weren't meant to look like targets (a claim that has already been easily "refudiated" by one of Sarah's tweets).
David Gergen has an excellent piece on the CNN website arguing that we need to avoid recrimination and finger pointing. He also reminds us that when this day passes, we need to do some reflection on the nature of discourse and "pledge to each other that we will struggle for a more civil and decent America."
Here's what I've been pondering. The reason we need to scale back our heated arguments is not primarily because they might inflame unbalanced individuals to acts of unimaginable violence. There will always be characters like John Hinkley (who shot Reagan) and Arthur Bremer (who shot Wallace). It's possible our rhetoric provides a rationale for misguided, wrongheaded, irrational, or absolutist people. As much as it pains me to say this, I kind of agree with Megyn Kelly -- these folks are out there.
The real issue, as Gergen makes clear, is what the rhetoric does for the rest of us. There are internet rumors circulating that Loughner once had "liberal leanings" and others that he's connected to "anti-government groups". What's happening is that Being Right and Scoring Political Points has become so important that we'll use the actions of a deranged individual to get Our Side to Win. That's not crazy behavior by an inhuman actor. That's us, getting sucked into a style of rhetoric that only has winners and losers.
It has been pointed out that just three days ago, Congresswoman Giffords took to the well of the House to read the First Amendment to the Constitution. It makes clear that the government "will make no laws abridging the freedom of speech." That has gotten distorted to the point that anyone suggesting that a sentiment not be shared is denying free speech rights. But just because you're free to your opinion doesn't mean that you shouldn't be careful about how it's expressed. I'll defend anyone whose voice is silenced by the government. But "bearing false witness" isn't a matter of freedom of speech. This isn't about legality, but is about our moral commitments to truth-telling and expressing common decency and compassion for fellow human beings. It's a higher bar to clear but it's really how we want to live.
Happy New Year anyway.