>A call to put down rhetorical arms

>The events on Saturday in Tucson in the US state of Arizona have shocked and concerned many, especially in the political world. Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, a highly talented Congresswoman who was tipped for greater things – Governor, Senator, even President – was shot in the head and remains in intensive care. Six other people, including a federal judge and a nine-year-old girl, have tragically died. When reading profiles of the victims yesterday, I was moved almost to tears. The response by the media classes in the United States has not been, by and large, a questioning and critique of the nation’s, or Arizona’s gun laws, but has instead focused on the actions of Sarah Palin.

Palin’s website put up a map of the United States with crosshairs hovering over the congressional districts of 20 representatives who voted in favour of President Obama’s healthcare reforms. This is the worst kind of political campaigning. Crass, rude and unnecessarily violent. Yet it is not alone. Sharron Angle spoke of Second Amendment remedies. Glenn Beck fantasised about poisoning Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Keith Olbermann stated that the only way to get Hillary Clinton to leave the 2008 Democratic primaries would be to assassinate her, although he did apologise for the remarks.

Violent language has long pervaded political discourse. Thomas Jefferson, indeed, spoke of renewing the ‘tree of liberty’ with the blood of ‘patriots and tyrants’. I do not believe that Sarah Palin intended for the map to harm anyone. We cannot directly tie the shootings with any politician or national figure because Loughner’s beliefs seem so confused, and his mental health so fragile. The responsibility for the deaths and the injuries lies solely with the gunman himself. The media should, therefore, leave Palin alone. She should apologise for producing that map, but not because it was responsible for the shootings.

She should apologise because politicians have a responsibility to treat others with respect – not just constituents, but colleagues, and opponents too. She should apologise because politicians have a responsibility not to legitimise violence. It cannot, however, just be Palin who should apologise, because she is not the only politician to use this sort of language. Politicians and cable pundits, from left and right, too often resort to using violent imagery, or to calling their opponents ‘evil’ or ‘fascist’. It may make them, or us, feel better, but it poisons the well of political discourse. By using this language, we are saying that it is OK for other people, citizens and constituents, to feel violent towards politicians. But it isn’t.

Just because someone disagrees with you doesn’t mean their viewpoint is invalid or, worse still, that they are is evil, fascistic or stupid. When we get back to understanding that, when we isolate the violent or the inciters, then we can have a proper political debate which focuses on actions and reality, rather than hating our opponents.

The shootings in Arizona are not the fault of the right, nor are they the fault of the left. They are the fault of a political discourse which too often resorts to violent imagery or angry sentiments to make a point. It doesn’t have to be like this, yet it so often is. Let us take from the shooting a message. Not a message of blaming one party over another, or blaming one person or another, but a message of civility, and service to constituents, a message which Gabrielle Giffords by all accounts made cornerstones of her political style. Even after Giffords’ office was targeted in 2009 and she was threatened she still carried on with her work as a Congresswoman. She still fought, and continues to fight, for the people of Arizona’s 8th. She still worked across the floor with those she disagreed with, even as they criticised the healthcare reforms in the strongest terms. She decried the violent language used in political debate.

That, surely, is the best message to take away from the shootings.

By Thomas Hemsley

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