When rhetoric turns tragic

The shooting in Arizona — which killed six and wounded 12, including Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, who was shot in the head — is a shocking and terrible incident. No matter what your politics are, there is no doubt this tragic. As we learn more about those who were there, we see just how tragic. There’s the story of the 9-year-old girl, recently elected to student council, who went to the meet-and-greet event outside a grocery store because she wanted to meet her representative. She was excited about learning about our government and how it works and now she’s dead. Giffords’ communications director and a federal judge were among the others who died. According to media reports, 22-year-old Jared Loughner is the alleged shooter.

It took no time at all for the conversation to turn from shock to anger. And when there’s anger, there has to be someone to blame. Now it seems the finger is pointed at the vitriolic “discourse” and sometimes violence-laced hyperbole associated with modern politics. People jumped on Sarah Palin’s election-season release of “targeted” districts (of which Giffords was one), which depicted those districts in gun crosshairs.

From Political Hotsheet:

In March, Palin released a map featuring 20 House Democrats that used crosshairs images to show their districts. (You can see it here.) Critics suggested at the time that she was inciting violence by using the crosshairs imagery and for later writing on Twitter to her supporters, “‘Don’t Retreat, Instead – RELOAD!'”

As much as I dislike Sarah Palin, I have to question the idea that her hunting-enthusiast imagery is anything more than just that. Imagery. I do not think Palin caused Loughner to commit this terrible act any more than I think heavy metal music causes suicides.

However, what I do think matters is that we have, as a nation, gotten way off track in the aggression of our language and debate (if anyone can really call it debate when it’s all split-screen shouting and no listening) with each other. There is no question that we have to dial it back when elected officials, such as Sharron Angle, talk about “Second Amendment remedies” if an election doesn’t go their way.

Certainly, the fact that our world is so full of disconnected dialogue — via texts, social media and even blogs — rather than face-to-face conversation doesn’t help. It emboldens people to enraged rants who might otherwise hold a civil (if still disagreeable) conversation. It can turn a coward into a bully. It can even lead to stalking and harassment.

But the answer is not to unplug the internet or throw away our cell phones. The answer is about responsibility. Everyone — you, me, Democrats, Republicans, all of us — to take responsibility for what we put out into the world. And, yeah, that might mean that people like Palin have to pull back, too. We have to ask ourselves if it furthers our goals to reach for the most damaging language. And we have to own what we do.

My heart goes out to those who were touched by this horrible shooting. Clearly, the perpetrator needs some professional help (and that is an important topic for another post — because to me this story is more about our lack of mental health services more so than gun control). I wish for everyone involved to have a speedy recovery and peace in their grief.

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