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Arizona Attack Puts Power of Political Rhetoric Back in the Spotlight

January 10, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
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The tragic shooting in Tucson, Ariz., has revived the debate on the power of words and the state of political rhetoric. Jim Lehrer gets the views of columnists Mark Shields and David Brooks as well as Professors Beverly Gage of Yale and Kathleen Hall Jamieson of the University of Pennsylvania.

JIM LEHRER: The Tucson shootings did revive a debate over the connections, if any, between political rhetoric and violent acts. That debate quickly spread to Washington and beyond.

It began within the first hours after Saturday’s attack in Tucson. Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik told a Saturday news conference that angry talk could have incited the alleged gunman.

CLARENCE DUPNIK, Pima County, Ariz., sheriff: When you look at unbalanced people, how they are — how they respond to the vitriol that comes out of certain mouths about tearing down the government, the anger, the hatred, the — the bigotry that goes on in this country is getting to be outrageous.

JIM LEHRER: Like Congresswoman Giffords, Dupnik is a Democrat.

And on Sunday, his criticism drew a response from Arizona Republican Sen. Jon Kyl, appearing on CBS.

SEN. JON KYL (R-Ariz.), minority whip: It was speculation, and I don’t think we should rush to speculate. I mean, we really don’t know what motivated this — this young person, except to know that he was very mentally unstable.

JIM LEHRER: Ironically, on Friday, Giffords herself had e-mailed a Republican friend, Kentucky’s secretary of state, Trey Grayson.

In it, she wrote, “I think that we need to figure out how to tone our rhetoric and partisanship down.”

And, after the shooting, talk about the impact of words quickly spilled over on to cable talk shows, on FOX…

BRET BAIER, FOX News: It is left and right. There are whack jobs on both sides, OK? And everyone, I think, acknowledges that. But there has been this obsession.

JIM LEHRER: … and on MSNBC, where host Keith Olbermann made this appeal on Saturday night.

KEITH OLBERMANN, host, Countdown With Keith Olbermann: At a time of such urgency and impact, we, as Americans, conservative or liberal, should pour our hearts and souls into our politics. We should not, none of us, not Gabby Giffords, not any conservative, ever have to pour our blood.

And every politician and commentator who hints otherwise, or worse still stays silent now, should have no place in our political system and should be denied that place, not by violence, but by being shunned and ignored.

JIM LEHRER: Conservative radio talker Rush Limbaugh shot back today that calls to tone down rhetoric are actually a backdoor way of stifling debate.

RUSH LIMBAUGH, radio talk-show host: When these types of events happen, I don’t recall and I’m not aware of one conservative, one Republican, one conservative blogger making a mad dash to a microphone, a camera or a computer to blame a Democrat or liberals for what happened in Arizona on Saturday.

But a mad path was beaten. Now, don’t kid yourself. What this is all about is shutting down any and all political opposition and eventually criminalizing it, criminalizing policy differences, at least when they differ from the Democrat Party agenda.

JIM LEHRER: Some of the debate focused on Republican Sarah Palin, the former Alaska governor. In the midterm election campaign, her political action committee’s website included crosshairs over 20 targeted congressional districts, including Giffords’. The congresswoman took note of it in an interview with MSNBC last year.

REP. GABRIELLE GIFFORDS (D-Ariz.): We’re on Sarah Palin’s targeted list, but the thing is that the way that she has it depicted has the crosshairs of a gun sight over our district. And when people do that, they have got to realize there’s consequences to that action.

JIM LEHRER: Palin has not spoken in public about Saturday’s attack, but she e-mailed her views to conservative commentator Glenn Beck, who discussed them this morning on his radio show.

GLENN BECK, radio talk-show host: She wrote back, in part: “I hate violence. I hate war. Our children will not have peace if politicos just capitalize on this to succeed in portraying anyone as inciting terror and violence.”

JIM LEHRER: The country had a similar conversation following the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. Then President Clinton appealed to Americans to denounce the forces of fear.

BILL CLINTON, former U.S. president: When there is talk of hatred, let us stand up and talk against it. When there is talk of violence, let us stand up and talk against it. In the face of death, let us honor life.

JIM LEHRER: And today in Congress, amid the back-and-forth over the Tucson shootings, there were also calls for calm from both sides.

ELEANOR HOLMES NORTON (D-DC), delegate: I think the message to cool it ought to be clear from this. Maybe it had nothing to do with this. Maybe his — his almost insane meanderings had nothing to do with what — with watching the Congress or with websites or blogs.

REP. FRED UPTON (R-Mich.): All of us are particularly heart-struck and saddened with the awful event in Tucson. And it gives us a step here to move forward in the right direction, shoulder-to-shoulder, knowing that we can certainly disagree on issues without being disagreeable. And I think it sends the — the right tone.

JIM LEHRER: President Obama himself once urged on followers during the 2008 campaign with a quip, “If they bring a knife to a fight, we bring a gun.”

He has not addressed the issue of political rhetoric since Saturday, but he did say today he wants to make sure that, out of this tragedy, we can come together as a stronger nation.

For more on the power of words, here now are Shields and Brooks, syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks, plus Beverly Gage, professor of American history at Yale University, and Kathleen Hall Jamieson, professor of communication and director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania.

First, David, do you believe the Tucson sheriff was right to suggest there was a connection between the Tucson shootings and vitriolic political speech?

DAVID BROOKS: So far, there’s no — absolutely no evidence to that. I think there’s evidence to the other side.

If you look at what Jared Loughner, do — we don’t know much about him, but we know a few things about him. One, that he made these videos which really described an attempt, and a very confused attempt, by an apparently mentally ill person to try to make sense of their lives and try to make sense of the categories of thought.

It’s all about categories and currencies of thought and grammar of thought and the government trying to control thoughts. And so the evidence that we do have suggests a person who is — thinks the government is coming in and taking over his thoughts. It suggests, if there is any evidence leading in any direction, that he’s a person suffering from an illness, who is far removed from politics as we normally understand it.

And in the world he inhabits, I think he was — the evidence would suggest so far that he was completely removed from the world of normal politics, from the world of civility, incivility or any that stuff.

So, I think most of the rhetoric and most of the arguments that have been made about civility, as, God knows I’m in favor of it, but it’s completely not germane to the tragedy in Tucson.

JIM LEHRER: Not germane, Mark?

MARK SHIELDS: I disagree.

I think, Jim, that we have seen the deterioration of our public debate and the climate that has been fostered and nurtured by what could only be called hate speech. And I think that hate speech basically depersonalizes and demonizes political adversaries. You’re not an adversary, not an opponent. You’re an enemy.

And I think — I don’t know of a causal relationship here with this individual, but one should not be surprised that, when you do demonize to the degree that we have done in our politics and has been done, whether it’s calling George Bush Hitler or calling Barack Obama Hitler, or saying as Glenn Beck did, that he knows he’s a racist, something happens.

And what happens most of all is that this kind of speech is seen as, not simply acceptable, but appropriate, when it’s repeated over and over again by people on major broadcast outlets and in major positions of power.

And I really do think that and I hope that this will come to a pause. It did after the assassination of Martin Luther King. There was a moderating of what had become then equally as ugly a speech as we have now.

JIM LEHRER: Kathleen, you follow these things very carefully. What would you — how would you characterize the state of — quote — “hate speech,” as defined by Mark?

KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON, director, Annenberg Public Policy Center: There are sites available on the Internet that provide some of the worst examples of hate speech that one could imagine.

One also, because of the accessibility of the Internet, has now the — created the capacity for troubled individuals to find homes in which they’re enveloped in problematic kinds of discourse that the rest of us don’t see and, as a result, don’t critique.

We also have, because of the nature of the news culture, the instances that I don’t think are more prevalent than they once were magnified to a greater extent than they once were. When the sheriff in Arizona said that he grew up in a very different environment, he was telling us something that is accurate.

When I was growing up and with many — when many my age were growing up, you knew your family, your friends, your immediate community and mainstream media. You didn’t know about the extremist sentiments that were out there. They probably were there per capita at about the same rate that they are right now.

Now, when they’re there, they find their way into the media, sometimes into the Internet into these little enclaves, sometimes into the mainstream in the form of cable talk and talk radio, where they’re repeated again and again, leading us to think they’re more typical than they actually are.

JIM LEHRER: Have you done any — any studies as to what — how that gets into somebody’s head, a disturbed person’s head, and actually leads to things like Tucson? I don’t mean Tucson specifically, but to things like that?

KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: We know from the studies of media violence that ongoing exposure to media violence has a small but statistically significant effect. And that effect is magnified in troubled individuals, individuals who are more likely to be vulnerable to forms of modeling.

We know our popular culture increasingly models explicit violence, including violence with guns, in both film and in television. And we know that that combines then with this Internet culture in which you have hate sites, extremists sites, paranoid sites to give the troubled individual a model of forms of violence and also potentially reinforcement for troubling tendencies.

And if that individual hasn’t had access to the kind of medical care that might calm the troubled thoughts, might work to correct the disorder, we potentially have a lethal combination in a changed cultural context from one in the past, where we probably had as many people who were troubled but not as many stimuli driving toward violence.

JIM LEHRER: Beverly Gage, do you agree with Kathleen that we have got a changed cultural context for all of this now?

BEVERLY GAGE, assistant professor, Yale University: I do agree on some level.

I think Americans have a tendency overall to — to forget how much violence has actually shaped our past politically, as well as nonpolitically. And when people say that, today, our culture is more politically divided than ever before, it’s important to remember, oh, that there were little things like the Civil War, other moments of really deep political conflict in our past.

But I do think that what has changed now is the frequency, as Kathleen said, with which people are really exposed to conversations and to ideas that they might not have had before. We’ve had lots of acts of political violence in our past. And, in fact, many of them have been quite similar to this case, in which you have someone who is an individual whose actual relationship to any sort of coherent set of political ideas or any kind of political institution has been somewhat iffy.

But, even in those instances, it has provoked a really lively and important debate about what the relationship is between speech and deeds. And I think, in this case, given that we’re all now exposed to so much more speech than we once were, it’s a profoundly important debate to have.

JIM LEHRER: A profoundly important debate to have, David?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, but not today.

JIM LEHRER: Why not today?

DAVID BROOKS: Because this is in the context of this horrific crime.

Listen, there’s hate speech and there’s incivil speech. Mark and I conduct ourselves every week in a certain manner, which I think is better than most people in television punditry. And I wish all of politics was conducted in such manner as we do, if I can pat myself on the back.

JIM LEHRER: You may. And I agree with you.


DAVID BROOKS: But that has nothing to do — A., it’s very problematic to take political speech and then translate it into political action.

Kathleen Hall Jamieson mentioned some studies. I think those studies between speech and action are extremely murky. It’s worth pointing out that, at a time when political speech has gotten much more violent, political assassinations have not increased. At a time when video games have gotten much more violent, crime rates have come down. When movies have gotten much more violent, again, crime rates have come down.

The relationship between speech and media and actual action is extremely murky. And correlation is not causation. We shouldn’t make that link very easily.

And, finally, in this case, in this heightened atmosphere, a lot of the coverage I saw after the killing tried to take the killing and to beat over the head certain people. I have no great love for Sarah Palin. I have no great love for the Tea Party movement or the anti-immigration movement.

But to say that their speech was somehow responsible or created or contributed to the killing of those people, including a 9-year-old girl, to me, that wasn’t only irrelevant; that was irresponsible. And that is what I saw all weekend.

JIM LEHRER: Kathleen, irrelevant, irresponsible?

KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: I don’t think that you can draw any association between acts of individual political speech and any specific kind of behavior. I think there’s no theoretical basis for suggesting it.

When I was talking about modeled violence, it was to suggest that, on the margins, modeling violence at an increasingly explicit level can have an effect on some vulnerable individuals. Fortunately, over the last decade-and-a-half, we’ve increased the access to mental health services, the access to medications that helped those who are mentally troubled.

And, as a result, the increase in mediated violence being modeled in entertainment should have a lessened effect because you have that counteractive balance. It doesn’t mean it’s going to affect all people all of the time. It’s an effect on the margin, a small portion of the population.

But I think we should remain concerned about explicitly modeled violence in an entertainment culture when you have high levels of access to lethal weapons. One of them was used this weekend.

JIM LEHRER: Now, Mark, you believe this is a legitimate debate then?

MARK SHIELDS: I do think it’s a legitimate debate, Jim. I don’t think there’s any question that the coarsening and debasing of our public debate…

JIM LEHRER: What about David’s suggestion, though, that this is being used for political purposes?

MARK SHIELDS: Oh, I don’t think there’s any question.

JIM LEHRER: Democrats are the ones who are leaping on Sarah Palin.

MARK SHIELDS: Well, I don’t think it’s simply Democrats.


MARK SHIELDS: I think it’s being used.

JIM LEHRER: All right. OK.

MARK SHIELDS: I think all things are being used.

And I think the Sarah Palin thing is a reach far beyond a bridge too far. I really do. I mean, the sights on the thing, just really targeting a district, and that this led to it, no.

But what I’m saying is this. David is a member of Congress, and so am I. This is what has happened to our language. And this is what’s happening to our democracy. Instead of saying David on an issue on the other side is misinformed or mistaken, I say David doesn’t love America. He’s evil. He obviously doesn’t believe in the same God we believe in. He doesn’t believe in the same country that we believe in. He’s owned by other people and other interests, probably foreign interests.

And when this happens, this not only debases our debate; what it does is, it forecloses democracy from working. It means that we won’t be able to be allies in a future event or on a future issue, because I would then be trucking with somebody…

JIM LEHRER: Consorting with the enemy.

MARK SHIELDS: That’s right, somebody who obviously doesn’t love America.

I think this is it. Civility, John Kennedy said, is not a sign of weakness. It has become a sign of weakness.

I will just tell you one quick anecdote. When Dan Rostenkowski died last summer, I pointed out…

JIM LEHRER: Illinois congressman…

MARK SHIELDS: The congressman, Democratic congressman, former chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, Chicago.


MARK SHIELDS: I pointed out on a discussion that he had — it was a different Congress. They only had one paid trip home a year. So, they used to have to drive back and forth to Chicago.

And he drove back with Bob Michel, the Republican House leader from the Battle of the Bulge, and Harold Collier, another Republican, in a station wagon. They switched turns driving, OK? And they had a cot in the back. One of them slept.

When I raised this, a conservative, you know, pundit, whatever you want to call him, authority, said this proves that Michel wasn’t a real Republican. This just proves that he was, you know, a house puppy or whatever else.

And, I mean, that’s what is happening to our politics. And the language has contributed to this climate. And it’s just debased it.

JIM LEHRER: Beverly Gage, do you smell the possibility, not the probability or certainly the certainty, that this tragedy could in fact lead to some open discussions not directly related, because — not accusing anybody of doing anything that resulted in the killing, but might actually change the dialogue and the tenor of the dialogue, the public dialogue?

BEVERLY GAGE: I think there is a real possibility of that.

And I think there have been moments in the past when an act of really wrenching violence like this has in fact caused Americans to step back, do a little bit of soul-searching and take on these bigger political questions, particularly at moments of kind of extreme political combat.

One that occurs to me is the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala. It was a moment of heightened political conflict, really the peak of the civil-rights movement. In the middle of that, you had had a whole series of other acts of violence that had not in fact called the question.

But, when this happened, killing, famously, four little girls, children who became really a symbol of the kinds of escalating rhetoric and the kinds of violence that had been occurring around the United States, you did see a moment in which Americans stepped back, and not only sort of said, who did this, what was going on with this particular individual, what were his politics, was he mentally unstable, but really asked, you know, is there something about us, is there something about the United States, about our laws, about the way we go about our politics that make things like this possible?

JIM LEHRER: Did that happen after Oklahoma City as well, Beverly?

BEVERLY GAGE: Well, to some degree, it did and it didn’t.

So, Oklahoma City is probably our best parallel to this current situation. Oklahoma City in 1995 came in the wake of the election of the Gingrich Congress with a fairly heated antigovernment rhetoric. These were also the early days of right-wing talk radio, and particularly Rush Limbaugh had really just come on the scene as a prominent figure.

And, after the Oklahoma City bombing, you did actually get a national discussion once again of, was there a relationship between what’s being said at these highest levels of power and influence, particularly on the right, and what happened with Timothy McVeigh?

In the end, I think that conversation actually didn’t get us very far. What happened after Oklahoma City is, of course, you had the criminal prosecution of Timothy McVeigh, a couple of his accomplices as well, and his eventual execution.

You got something of a law-enforcement crackdown on the militia movement and on sort of far-right, relatively fringe movements, but I think the conversation that was started then, ultimately, about our national discourse and where it was going didn’t sustain for very long. And, maybe if it had, we would be in a different position today, in the 21st century.

JIM LEHRER: Kathleen, and before we go, what’s your memory of what happened after Oklahoma City? Do you agree it kind of petered out after a while, or did it have some lasting effect?

KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: It petered out after a while, but there’s that underlying tendency in — in particularly congressional rhetoric in which, after the turnover in power — and the 104th had just occurred — when there are turnovers in power, you have higher levels of incivility, as the majority adjusts to its new role and the minority adjusts to it.

And then, by the second session the 104th, the level of civility in Congress had returned to its historic norm. This tends to ebb and flow. You tend to have moments in which it spikes up, and then the institution tends to right itself, because incivility doesn’t correlate with productivity. And you’re not going to be reelected if you don’t accomplish very much.

JIM LEHRER: OK. Well, we’re going to leave it there.

Thank you, all four, very much.