“We are better than this; we must do better”

I knew it:  I knew right away that whether or not there was any evidence that the person who shot Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was motivated by the loudmouths on radio and TV, that some of those loudmouths would be blaming the others for inciting political violence.  And I was right…I also predicted the sun would rise in the east this morning.

405992-giffordsMore than two days after the fact and there is no evidence (of which I’m aware) that the man who shot Giffords and 19 [1/12, authorities have revised the figure to] 18 others was persuaded to lethal levels of violence by radio and TV stars; short of his declaration that “so-and-so said it was the right thing to do,” I don’t see that there ever will be.  So let’s leave that alone.

Starting with Sheriff Clarence Dupnik at Saturday’s news conference, there has been a lot of ink spilled calling for restraint, for throttling back the vitriol that fuels so much of the political discussion in our halls of government and our radio and television studios.  It is worth considering to what extent the personal viciousness—and the attendant self-satisfied smugness—of the professional politicians and the paid-to-be-controversial “opinion hosts” has created an environment where consideration of physical violence becomes less theoretical.

I’ve written about the tone of modern political discussion, which is clearly not intended to appeal to the intellect but to rouse the emotions and appeal to paranoia.  And I’m troubled by how successful those messengers and their messages are.

Sure, I’d like to see more restraint and less accusation in political speech, but I know that real world politics isn’t an academic debate.  And I agree with Jack Shafer’s insistence that there be no government-imposed restriction on political speech—the First Amendment makes clear that is not allowed.  (Check my We the People page for a collection of quotations on free expression.)

But I wish there was more self-control when it comes to speech intended to demonize political opponents: to say not just that someone’s position or opinion is wrong, but that those people are evil, or hostile to American ideals and virtues, because of what they believe.  Disagree with me?  Fine; argue my conclusion, dispute my facts, prove me wrong, ridicule my reasoning, do so with vigor; but to respond that my disagreement with your point of view is evidence of imbecility or treason is not a rebuttal.  It’s a sign of the weakness of your position; it’s a sign that you have nothing to say.

One of the more touching observances of a moment of silence for the victims of the shootings in Tucson came this morning from Giffords’ brother-in-law: NASA astronaut Scott Kelly, the current commander of the International Space Station.  (Full disclosure—I work at NASA Johnson Space Center and am acquainted with both Scott Kelly and his brother Mark Kelly, Giffords’ husband.)  The good stuff starts 1:27 into the clip–

We have a unique vantage point here aboard the International Space Station.  As I look out the window I see a very beautiful planet that seems very inviting and peaceful; unfortunately, it is not.  These days we are constantly reminded of the unspeakable acts of violence and damage we can inflict upon one another, not just with our actions but also with our irresponsible words.  We are better than this; we must do better.  The crew of ISS Expedition 26 and the flight control centers around the world would like to observe a moment of silence in honor of all the victims, which include my sister-in-law Gabrielle Giffords, a caring and dedicated public servant.  Please join me and the rest of the Expedition 26 crew in a moment of silence.

10 thoughts on ““We are better than this; we must do better”

  1. There are two foundational principles that should become manifest from the current post-shooting debate. You identified the first principle which I also raised in prior comments — debate the facts not the personalties.

    The second principle, of equal dignity, is that the politicians and pundits alike should establish that there is some “conduct” that is simply unacceptable. A candidate might note that there is a growing frustration giving rise to “Second Amendment remedies” if an election does not yield a welcome outcome, but that same candidate should also state unequivocally that such conduct is not the answer and is unacceptable. The failure of candidates to reject such a response (after raising the issue in the first place) only supplies that response with the patina of legitimacy.

    Parenthetically, we, as a country, have previously had to deal with the intersection of the First Amendment and open advocacy which had a direct or indirect dimension of violence. From the Wobblies to the anarchists to the Socialists to the Communists, there was open rhetoric opposing the established government. The First Amendment has been held to protect the right to oppose the government by argument and even to seek the overthrow of the government by argument provided that there is no “advocacy to action.” Although I am not a First Amendment absolutist like Justice Hugo Black (i.e there can be no governmental restriction abridging free speech at all as the text reads and as someone like Justice Black may favor considering his past affiliations), I have found the compromise of the “advocacy to action” approach unavailing. The current debate proves this point, as when does the political discourse cross the line when there are folks out there who cannot process information independently and rationally. Furthermore, precedent shows that the “advocacy” threshold was not robust and speech was still abridged by governmental action. That is why the answer is not to restrict speech, but rather to encourage the speakers to denounce such conduct. I would say that such an approach comprises leadership and would be the best reason to vote for a candidate instead of some personal attack.

    1. I fully support your “second principle” that advocates in the public arena should establish their position that violent conduct is unacceptable–and in the wake of last Saturday’s event we have seen some do so–while I lament that it is necessary to remind “leaders” of that responsibility.

      There’s another thing we shouldn’t have to say, but in the interest of thoroughness: even if some leader has incited violent behavior or created an environment that fosters it–and neither has yet been established in the case of Jared Loughner and the Tucson shootings–the person with the gun in his hand is responsible for what he or she has done. The fact that we discuss whether the tone of political discussion influences any individual’s violent action does not mean that we absolve the actor of responsibility.

  2. Three fundamental principles are better than two fundamental principles. A philosophical stool stands better with three legs. I leave it up to the reader which type of stool is involved in this comment. I concur that personal responsibility is paramount and the shooter may not be excused from his culpability for planning and executing this horrible attack. Personal responsibility (albeit a different species of personal responsibility) attaches to the shooter, to the pundit or politician that is cavalier about the impact of words, and to the pundit or politician who fulminates blame or causation or tries to wrest the mantle of victim. None of them are victims.

  3. I have heard some speech from the Right that could be toned down as far as using metaphors and images associated with strong opposition to politicians and policies, but virtually ALL of the hate-filled vitriol I’ve ever seen – including actual violence and destruction of property – has almost ALWAYS come from the Left. The prisons are shock full of Socialists of the Left who have heard from Leftists for decades that what isn’t theirs, really should be. The whole notion from the “Social Justice” advocates of the Left, including Obama’s church and Black Liberation Theology with James Cone leading the way, is that by whatever means necessary – including violence – the “oppressors” should succumb to their demands.

    All one has to do is cover protests of the Left to find violence is part of their agendas, the animal rights and eco-leftists groups using violence to send their messages for decades.

    Thanks for listening,

    1. If actual violence and property destruction has “almost always” come from the left, as you say, then we agree that it sometimes comes from the right and other points along the spectrum, too. I hope we can agree that it shouldn’t be coming at all, and will speak out against it whenever it does.

  4. I accept the premise put forth by 777Denny that there are persons whose rhetoric is unacceptable because such persons fail to respect the dignity of human life and the value of property. I will speak out, and have spoken out, against violence and other unacceptable words and conduct.
    His suggestion or inference about which group engages in such unacceptable conduct with greater or lesser frequency merits some comment. For me, his suggestion misses the mark, because it is the content that counts and not the congruence, equivalence or even equality of unacceptable words or conduct. Asymmetry in unacceptable words or conduct does not elevate one end of even an imbalanced pendulum over the other.
    It is most important to identify words or conduct that merit rebuke on an individual basis rather than to reduce ideas to groupings or to associate certain ideas with groups and hence uncritically to all members of that group. If I agree or disagree withh 777Denny, I agree or disagree with his words and not with some amorphous Right (even if 777Denny could be identified by such a label or maybe not). If each of us were to evaluate each time we analyzed an issue by attributing ideas to another because we associate that person with one group or another and not by addressing the specifics and nuances of that person’s ideas, then we would find that uncritical thought knows no ideological moorings. 777Denny will then know why I find that his suggestion misses the mark.

  5. Pascal Piazza,
    I do appreciate your respectful disagreement with the thrust of my reasoning. I am just merely pointing out that the Left is much more prone to vitriolic speech (don’t you remember bullet holes in Bush posters, numerous death threats against Bush, etc.?) and call for violence against their opponent than the Right is.

    Pat Ryan,
    I agree with your premise.
    BTW, one time when I saw a pic of BHO with a scope on it, I informed the perpetrators that it was not appropriate to do such things.


    1. Good for you–now that’s what I’m talking about.

      Pascal can respond for himself, of course. My thought about your comment to him was imagining it as a jumping off spot for an litany of examples of hateful speech — “Your side said this.” “Well, your side said that.” “But remember when your side said this?” — and thinking that wouldn’t be very productive, unless it afforded us, first, a clear and depressing reminder of the shameful and stupid things that have been said and done in the name of politics, and second, an opportunity to do as Pascal suggested–to consider any action or speech on its own merit (or lack of merit) rather than succumb to groupthink and guilt by association.

      Thank you for your comments, Denny.

  6. Thanks for all of the comments. This has been a productive discussion. Pat summarized my ultimate point very well.
    From this discussion, I think that we all will evaluate what we hear regardless of the source and take a stand for responsibility even when we disagree on key points. Cheers. Merci. Pace e salute.


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