Reports that Arizona shooter Jared Loughner might be mentally unstable are giving some conservatives an escape clause from the renewed focus on the vitriol and demagoguery that dominates political discourse. Right-wing mouthpiece Rush Limbaugh was quick to characterize calls for civility in politics after the tragic shooting spree in Arizona a rush to judgment by liberals, and took particular aim at the local Tuscan sheriff who courageously called for politicians to tone down the divisive rhetoric. The right is now working the media circuit and blogosphere to spread the message that Loughner was “crazy,” and that the tone of political discourse, particularly from conservatives, bears no blame for the carnage he unleashed on his victims.
This rush from causality in the Arizona tragedy is in stark contrast to what we normally hear from conservatives. In the past the right, and some on the left, have gleefully pointed the finger at rap artists and the hip-hop community as the cause of urban violence, and criminal behavior. We have even heard critics lambast the attire of young Black men, suggesting that low-riding pants point to criminality. Yet, after a highly visible political figure uses images of crosshairs to single out political opponents, are we suppose to believe that such encouragement does not push the mentally unstable over the edge? When opponents compare the President to Adolph Hitler, and a member of Congress shouts “You Lie” at the commander-in-chief during a nationally televised address to the nation, do we really believe that an individual in a fragile state of mind will not take that as permission to act on irrational impulses?
We have always had crazy in politics. There was something irrational and schizophrenic about our nation’s Founding Fathers embracing the Declaration of Independence but owning slaves. Then, drafting a Constitution that treats human beings as property. It did not end there. The Ku Klux Klan was not some rogue band of outcasts; in many instances, they included “respectable” members of the white community. Their zeal for white supremacy encouraged many “good white people” to commit heinous acts. Do we not think that President Woodrow Wilson’s embrace of Jim Crow, and his endorsement of the film “Birth of a Nation,” signaled to some unstable elements in our country that violence against Blacks was permissible? Crazy always requires encouragement. We are certain that white parents who were among those taunting Black children en route to school look back on that era and wonder what (Could it have been the angry talk of politicians?) possessed them to act in such a way.
We have also had tough talk in politics that sometimes motivated people to do the unthinkable. The difference today is that the rhetoric is on a 24-hour news cycle and available for quick consumption in any number of ways – from the television, terrestrial and satellite radio, Internet and mobile devices. What makes today’s environment that much more alarming is the availability of weaponry that makes killing convenient. Given our low threshold on gun control, incidents such as those in Arizona are bound to occur when loose lips give license to people who are delusional and mentally ill.
The crassness of political commentary and criticism might not have pulled the trigger, but it loaded the barrel of the gun. No amount of denial will hide the ugly truth that the ugliness of politics bears tremendous responsibility for the bloodshed we witnessed one week ago. If we continue down this path, expect more. It is inevitable in a country that protects gun ownership more than human life, and where politicians take delight in demonizing their opponents, and public ignorance breeds contempt. The better half of America had better speak up because its more stupid half is winning the day.