Two things before we begin:
1.) Obviously, this Jared Lee Loughner fellow is deranged, possibly schizophrenic (although, we shouldn’t give too much weight to armchair diagnoses), and a cold-blooded would-be assassin who may be linked to a right-wing, anti-semitic, anti-immigration group [update: probably not; also: good job there, Fox News] (Giffords is Jewish, and her district runs along the Mexican border). He also had a rather wide-ranging reading list. (Good analysis here.)
2.) Fiery political rhetoric in this country is neither new nor nowhere near an all-time low. (See here and here for just some examples.) Hell, at least four members of Congress have been killed in duels since this nation’s inception. That said, that doesn’t mean that things like this or this or this should be deemed acceptable in modern society, much less rewarded with gobs of media attention. And it doesn’t mean that the belligerency that has come (almost overwhelmingly) from the right, and the culture of conspiracy and paranoia it cooked up these last two years should be let off the hook just because the shooter was disturbed and didn’t have a clear-cut political agenda (at least, as can be deciphered from his Internet ramblings). Indeed, as one senior GOP senator told Politico yesterday: “There is a need for some reflection here—what is too far now? What was too far when Oklahoma City happened is accepted now. There’s been a desensitizing. These town halls and cable TV and talk radio, everybody’s trying to outdo each other.” (You’ll notice that these comments were made anonymously, likely because the senator doesn’t wish to incur the venomous wrath of the cable TV and talk radio folks. That pretty much says it all, no?)
Which brings me to this:
Pennsylvania Rep. Robert Brady, a Democrat from Philadelphia, told CNN that he also plans to take legislative action. He will introduce a bill that would make it a crime for anyone to use language or symbols that could be seen as threatening or violent against a federal official, including a member of Congress.
Read that again: “a crime for anyone to use language or symbols that could be seen as threatening or violent against a federal official” [italics mine, and more on that in a minute]. Clearly, that means stuff like this:
Representative Giffords’ district was, of course, right there on Sarah Palin’s target map. (She was one of only three Democrats on it to survive the November shellacking.) And yes, Palin’s bulls-eye map is as mindless and reckless as, well, everything else Sarah Palin has ever done or said. To wit:
But should it be illegal?
Let’s assume for a moment that Sarah Palin’s violent imagery somehow directly led Loughner to want to assassinate Gabby Giffords. Does that mean such imagery should be banned from political campaigns, as Brady apparently believes? No—and, frankly, the very idea is more threatening to democracy than some nutjob with a semi-automatic. (Tangential note: That such a demonstrably screwed-up man was able to get such a powerful weapon, no questions asked, should in and of itself be cause for concern. But that’s for another day.)
If Brady’s legislation has been committed to paper, I’ve yet to see it. And maybe the end product will be more nuanced than what has thus far been presented in the media. But as is, Brady’s proposal, though well meaning, looks like reactionaryism at its very worst; the cure is much, much worse than the disease.
Think about the kinds of “language or symbols that could be seen as threatening to federal officials” for a second. First question: Could be seen by whom? Who is the arbiter of such perceptions? Would hanging in effigy, a centuries-old manner of protest, count? How about this asinine campaign ad from last year? Might we be giving carte blanche for U.S. attorneys—who are, of course, appointed by the president—to go after the president’s opponents?
A distinction needs to be made between violent language and language that incited violence. Those are two very different things. For better or worse, violent language permeates political discourse because, well, allusions to war permeate the English language when we talk about competition: words like “campaign,” “battle,” “fought,” and “attack” are ubiquitous in political writing. Many of those same words, not for nothing, appear on sports pages, too. So where do we draw the line? Perhaps one politician saying, “We should shoot my opponent in the head,” is a bit too far. But what about: “I will fight tooth and nail against my opponent’s dangerous ideas; this is a battle for the soul of America. Who will fight with me?” Or Sharron Angle’s infamous “Second Amendment remedies” line?
It’s far, far too opaque an area for Congress to be inserting itself. The freedom of speech—and perhaps, above all else, political speech—should be absolutely sacrosanct. That’s what the First Amendment was about: ensuring the right to smear and chastise your political opponents in whatever manner you deem necessary. Short of direct solicitations of violence—i.e. a politician or pundit directly encouraging his followers to literally injure or kill an opponent—these should absolutely not be subject of legislative remedy. The slippery slope is, well, frightening. Where does it end?
So, hopefully, Bob Brady’s bill dies a quick death. (There I go, using that language.) But just because language should not be illegal doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be roundly and vociferously condemned. Yes, the violent, inane and paranoid rhetoric from Tea Partyers (Palin, Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Michael Savage, etc.) should not be banned or regulated by Bob Brady or the US Congress or the president or anyone else; it should, however, be the target of our moral derision. And I would posit that, if anyone needs a moment for retrospection, it’s the media organizations that hang on these folks’ Tweets and Facebook posts and talk-show ramblings as if they’re somehow worthy of widespread dissemination and discussion; it’s also the companies that give these people platforms to promote their propaganda and conspiracy mongering, or support their hate speech with advertising dollars.
The path to civility lies not in governmental mandate—such a thing would have been antithetical to our Founders, many of whom were no stranger to dirty politics—but in self-restraint. Words do have consequences. And yes, the culture of hate promulgated by right-wing radio and politicians may have contributed, in some way, to Jared Lee Loughner doing what he did. (Or, conversely, maybe he just had a sick antipathy toward his target, for no good reason at all.) And those who employ such language should be shunned and discredited; the politics of the 21st Century should be better than these self-aggrandizing assholes and bigots.
But that should come from us—not from our government.