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Is hateful rhetoric to blame for political violence?

Published: Thursday, January 13, 2011

Updated: Thursday, January 13, 2011 14:01

Jon Stewart opened "The Daily Show" Monday by departing from his normal routine and delivering a lengthy monologue about the shooting in Arizona on Jan. 8, which claimed the lives of six people and almost took the life of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. Stewart soberly asked the audience, "How do you make sense of these types of senseless situations?"

In the aftermath of the shooting, there was a scramble amongst America's political pundits to find someone or something to blame. There was a lot of discussion about the confused and incoherent rantings of the shooter, and everyone seemed to be looking for the one thing that would, as Stewart said, "exonerate their side from blame, or implicate the other." It amounted to a shameful politicization of a national tragedy.

Those who are not looking for someone to blame are instead looking for something to blame. Toxic and hateful political rhetoric has been singled out as a cause of the violence by some who see it as either a contributing factor or the sole cause of the violence. The rhetoric in question is not hard to find; it's a frequent feature in our political media, as exemplified by Glenn Beck or almost any other right wing talk show host. Not many people would argue that hateful and hyperbolic language isn't a problem, but was it to blame for this tragedy?

This view was touted in a New York Times op-ed from Jan. 9 by Paul Krugman entitled "Climate of Hate," where he discusses the rise of "eliminationist rhetoric" on the right side of the political aisle and blames the shooting on the political climate that the rhetoric creates. Krugman concludes that "it's the saturation of our political discourse — and especially our airwaves — with eliminationist rhetoric that lies behind the rising tide of violence." He places the blame for this squarely on the GOP, adding "Let's not make a false pretense of balance: it's coming, overwhelmingly, from the right. It's hard to imagine a Democratic member of Congress urging constituents to be ‘armed and dangerous.'"

 I don't think there is any doubt that Krugman is making a valid observation about the source of the "eliminationist rhetoric." The GOP is responsible to a large degree for the absurd nature of our current national political climate. They are the ones who tend to utilize moral outrage as a first response to political disagreements, and who frame their political opponents as enemies. This type of language is disgusting, and it frequently prevents political progress.

That being said, it would be premature to single that legitimate problem out as the sole, or even most important, cause of what happened in Arizona. To quote Stewart again, "Did the toxic political environment cause this? I have no f---ing idea. We live in a complex ecosystem of influences and motivations, and I wouldn't blame our political rhetoric any more than I would blame heavy metal music for Columbine."

I think Stewart is making a valuable point that is missed by a large number of the people trying to steer the public reaction to this event. We all see problems that may have contributed to this tragedy, and it's natural to look for a single cause of the violence so that we can prevent more shootings from happening in the future. But that's not how things work. There is no single cause for violence when it comes from an individual that is this confused and troubled. Even after years of trying to figure out what sparked the Columbine shooting, there is still not one single cause to point to, and there won't be one here either. As Stewart points out, you can't prevent this type of event forever. "You cannot outsmart crazy. You don't know what a troubled mind will get caught on. Crazy always seems to find a way – it always has."

I think that when faced with an outburst of violence such as this, we should work towards solving any problems that it may bring to the surface, but we should also recognize that there is no single politician, political party or radio host that is to blame for this. There is no single problem that can be fixed in order to prevent further violence with absolute certainty. All we can do is to go back to our daily lives and try to improve the world one day at a time. That's what Gabrielle Giffords did in her career, and it's something that the rest of us should all strive for.

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