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January 10, 2011


Here's a difference:
"If they bring a knife to the fight, we bring a gun" is a conditional statement.
"Help remove Gabrielle Giffords from office Shoot a fully automatic M16 with Jesse Kelly" is not.
In the parlance of the military, they suggest entirely different rules of engagement.

As the windbags in Congress delight in saying, I commend Brendan for this post, but I am obliged to take exception to a pivotal proposition Brendan makes in the preceding post.

First, let's address what Jack Shafer of Slate headlines: "the awesome stupidity of the calls to tamp down political speech in the wake of the Giffords shooting."

Certainly civility in public discourse is important and desirable. At the same time, as Brendan notes, there's no evidence that rhetoric caused the Tucson massacre. To put it bluntly, it seems fairly clear that the shooter in Tucson was psychotic, nuts, crazy as a bedbug, cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs. Like would-be presidential assassin John Hinckley, serial murderer David Berkowitz and Virginia Tech murderer Seung-Hui Cho, the Tucson shooter wasn't influenced by the vitriol of political debate or any other rational consideration, he was driven by his own demons.

If we're determined to draw a lesson from the Tucson shooting and other similar tragedies, it might be that we need to make it easier to involuntarily commit someone. That approach would probably raise constitutional concerns and would almost certainly lead to the commitment of many who are not dangerous. For those reasons I believe that would be a foolish response to occasional violent acts by psychotics.

But at least such a response would relate to what actually motivated the Tucson massacre. By contrast, using the Tucson massacre to seek to stifle vigorous, even raucous peaceful political discourse is illogical, opportunistic and wrong.

As for Brendan's preceding post, he creates a false equivalence between the argument that criticism of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq encouraged our enemies and the argument that conservative rhetoric about liberal politicians encourages violence. (His first commenter to that post is right about the false equivalence but wrong about the implications of it.) Al Qaeda, the Taliban and the "insurgents" in Iraq may all be fanatics, but they're not psychotic. They're capable of reaching rational conclusions. It would be logical for them to conclude that they can succeed by either exacting a heavy toll on Americans or waiting out an American withdrawal. That doesn't make opposition to the wars wrong or unpatriotic, but it is an actual consequence of opposition, and if we believe in speaking the truth we ought to acknowledge it.

Jared Loughner, on the other hand, is not rational. There's no reason to believe a more civil public discourse would have caused him not to act as he did. The delusions of paranoics often focus on the government and politics. That doesn't mean we should change government or politics. We didn't blame Jodie Foster for Hinckley's act, which was motivated by his delusions about her, nor did we blame black Labradors for David Berkowitz's acts, even though he believed he was controlled by Harvey the dog. Sarah Palin's bulls-eyes and Tea Party rhetoric were no more responsible than Harvey the dog and ought to be regarded as benignly.

Thanks for this post, Brendan. Kos's comment is particularly ironic, because an item posted on his site two days before the shooting (since taken down) had a headline:

My CongressWOMAN voted against Nancy Pelosi! And is now DEAD to me!

There were also several references to "dead" in the comment thread.

This sort of false accusation seems to go only one way. E.g., a case could have been made that the Unabomber was motivated by Al Gore. Not only did his rambling dissertations vaguely resemble Gore's environmentalism, the Unabomber actually had a copy of Gore's book, Earth in the Balance, in his cabin.

Obviously, there was no coordinated campaign blaming Al Gore for the Unabomber, nor should there have been. I would guess that few people are even aware that he had Gore's book. However, if the Unabomber had owned a book by Newt Gingrich, I suspect there would have been a big to-do blaming Newt.

Some of the most troubling statements suggesting the use of violence in recent months have come from the right, but Republicans certainly don't have a monopoly on extremist rhetoric.

Wow, Rush himself couldn't have said it any better. "Some" of the most troubling statements come from the GOP? What planet are you living on?

And in any case, there's no indication that the alleged shooter was inspired by those statements.

And there's no indication that the shooter wasn't inspired by those statements. So we're both speculating. Except my speculation is based on the evidence: (1) Politicians like Palin, Angle and Bachmann suggest that taking up arms against politicians may be appropriate, given the circumstances; (2) a crazed psychotic shoots a Democratic member of congress.

Rather than reducing polarization, Krugman and others like him are creating more.

Uh, Krugman doesn't care about "polarization". (If you actually read his column, you'd understand that.)

I'll give Chait half credit for acknowledging that political rhetoric didn't lead to Loughner's attack. However, he's wrong about what he calls "right-wing hysteria." In fact, his claim is so wrong that he deserves to be shamed for it.

Chait makes the remarkable accusation that, "It has become normal for conservatives to hint that they will take up arms if they don't get their way politically." That's a very serous charge. Yet, Chait doesn't give a single example of conservatives threatening to take up arms, let alone show that this is the norm. To make so serious a charge without any support is a serious rheotrical misdeed.

I think Barack Obama has been treated more nicely than George Bush was when he was President. E.g., the 2006 British film "Death of a President" dramatized the fictional assassination of George W. Bush, going so far as to superimpose the President's face on that of the actor. The film was screened in the U.S. for 14 days, showing at 143 theatres at its widest release.

IMHO the current criticism of Sarah Palin is also at least as harsh and provocative as the criticism of Obama.

"It was a random act." Are you saying that if Giffords had been at the Seven-Eleven two blocks away rather than at the Safeway, she would not have been shot? You can't believe that. The available evidence says he was her target.

"This was not a right-wing militia member taking apocalyptic right-wing rhetoric about watering the tree of liberty too seriously." Very likely so. But was it a psychotic young man influenced by apocalyptic right-wing rhetoric about watering the tree of liberty? At this point, I don't think we know the answer to that.

Why are you jumping to conclusions?

I think in the rush to come across as unbiased and fair, analysts like Brendan are going a bit too far to the other side.

It is irresponsible to disregard the events of Saturday as the actions of a lone-acting "crazy nut". He obviously had enough mental faculty to know which district he lived in, who represented his district, when and where that person was speaking, and what he/she looked like. That inherently makes it political, whether you want it to or not. He wasn't so crazy he didn't know how taxi-cabs worked, since he took one. If you are going to chalk it up to the acts of a crazy man, then I want to see that crazy man run around smeared in his own feces, yelling about Darth Vader cereal, and chirping like a Dodo bird - That's crazy. This guy just seemed a bit off (obviously anyone who shoots people is a bit off). But there's a difference.

Likewise, stop calling it "random". Random is going to a Sunglass Hut and throwing bananas at the sunglasses because they are evil representations of Joan of Arc. Targeting the US Representative at the scheduled time of her appearance is not "random".

You are letting people off easy here - both on the left and right. Putting 100% of the blame on one person, saying he would have done it regardless of the public environment, is off-casting the irresponsibility of many people in public office and the media.

1. On whether there is a monopoly... While there may be martial metaphor and imagery from the Left like (an archery bullseye?) or Obama quoting the Untouchables, his audience is not hearing it with message accompaniment from Rush Limbaugh, Michelle Bachman, Glenn Beck or Sharron Angle borderline-condoning violent resistance. And even if it's not a pure monopoly doesn't mean the excess is not very largely one-sided.

2. How influenced the shooter in AZ may have been is not an uncomplicated question. Beck, Limbaugh, the GOP can inflame people with incendiary rhetoric that then echoes through others on TV, on the internet, in conversation in Arizona. Even if it passed through several generations before reaching his diseased mind, the proliferating threatening rhetoric potentially influenced him.

3. As you say, the charge against the Right is more than this count. There has been a big spike in threats aimed at congressmen, overwhelmingly Democrats, in the past two years coinciding with rightwing extremist rhetoric.

I'm just inspired to discover that Thomas Jefferson was a right-wing rhetorician.

Don't totally dismiss this nutjobs political leanings... based on his choice of books, his feelings on the flag, his anti-Christian beliefs, his history of involvement in politics, it is not beyond the realmn of possibility that this guy was a solid liberal who voted reliably Democrat. If that's the case, I think it proves nothing about anything, but it's still pretty interesting.

The idea that Palin has even become a part of this story speaks more about the obsession of liberals with Sarah Palin than anything else.

There is not a single piece of evidence that links her to the crime, but somehow she is the biggest part of the story.

It would be one thing if this kind of speculation was taking place in the comments on some blog, but to see main-stream media outlets taking this as a legitimate point of view is truly bizarre....

"It has become normal for conservatives to hint that they will take up arms if they don't get their way politically"...

"Some of the most troubling statements suggesting the use of violence in recent months have come from the right"...

I keep seeing people claim on the web that Palin, Beck et.al. have been inciting violence and even Brendan and Chait above seems to insinuate it, but I must have missed these. It's a serious change. Anyone care to show some documentation?

MartyB, liberals may well call for the use of violence more than conservatives do. If you go to this site and follow the links, you can find calls to commit violence made by liberals Joe Biden, Claire McCaskill, Francis Fox Piven, Randi Rhodes, Chris Matthews, Bill Maher the St. Petersburg Democratic Club, Ted Rall, James Cameron, Spike Lee, and others.

IMHO listeners understand all these calls for violence as mere rhetoric. I see little wrong with them.

Let's turn off the italics. There.

My question: if eliminationist rhetoric has no effect, then why is it bad?

Woo hoo! I love these fiery comments!

Here's my two cents, I agree with Nyhan it's unfair to connect Palin and Angle to the shooter. The reality is this guy is mentally unstable and could have chosen any cause to shoot up. That is how this was arbitrary.

People pay very little attention to current events and politics in particular compared to other media outlets. People are much more influenced by movies/tv/video games than they are the news. Yes, this guy was influenced by politics but talk of violence accounts for <1% of even the worst politicians speech whereas violence accounts for >50% of all video games and many movies. I'm not advocating censorship but if you want to point fingers the Tea Party is the wrong place.

If you want to live in a world where events like this are less common the most effective route is not a witch hunt on violence in media. The solution is treating mental illness though I seriously doubt we'll see a media firestorm on the thousands of untreated unmedicated schizos in every American city.

@Andrew, again your evidence is circumstantial. There is no direct link between Palin and Loughner. Check Palin's facebook page, she posted a prayer for the victim, their family, peace, and justice.

@WorkMonkey, you obviously have very little experience in dealing with mental illenss. I would suggest not commenting on the subject.

Arguing for a relationship between the shooter and conservative politicians/pundits, Andrew wrote: "Except my speculation is based on the evidence." Sorry, Andrew, your speculation is based on speculation, fantasy and, ahem, perhaps projection. In the real world, we prefer our evidence to be a little more concrete.

The evidence seems to be that the shooter fixated on the Congresswoman in 2007 when she did not respond to his satisfaction to some bizzaro question about the meaning of words and the Government. Notice the date. 2007. Mrs. Palin was then the unknown Governor of Alaska. Beck was still employed by CNN. The question that sent him off had nothing to do with politics or with anything approaching reality.

The news media have now carried numerous stories from the shooter's friends, acquaintances and classmates. None suggest that he paid any attention to politics as any of us would understand that term. The claim that Beck, Palin, Bachmann et al created some kind of atmosphere that magically penetrated his head and influenced his thinking, well, there just isn't any evidence that's what happened, no matter how much you wish that were so.


Andrew --

It is not a commentary on the merits of liberal philosophy to say that both sides engage in extreme rhetoric. Be real. The far left and far right, as they are somewhat shallowly identified, have each had recurring moments in violent rhetoric and violent actions by fringe members or groups. Have we forgotten the 20th century so quickly?

Also, yes there is clearly evidence that the shooter is not Tea Party fringe. He was found with a copy of The Communist Manifesto. Go to a Tea Party & find the 50 craziest hardcore conservatives there. Not one of them will regularly read, or claim to be inspired by, Karl Marx. The more fashionable & shallow the GOP politician, the more anti-communist & anti-socialist they will claim to be. Also the dude was into flag burning. How right wing is that? Would Sarah Palin really inspire a violent anarcho-communist to act on her behalf? The shooter in this case is more likely to have been influenced by Rage Against The Machine.


Granting that there is no evidence to support the claim that "rhetoric caused Saturday's events", what does this statement of truth have to do with Paul Krugman's article, "Climate of Hate"? Krugman is not claiming a singular cause and effect connection between any one person's rhetoric and the shooting. He's claiming that the climate increases the odds that a shooting like this is likely to happen and specifically, that it would be a mistake to consider the shooting of Congressman Giffords as an isolated event. Maybe he's wrong, buy far from being "evidence-free", he provides a decent amount of evidence to support the claim as a reasonable topic of debate.

Aren't you guilty yourself of guilt-by-association when you lump the arguments made by Krugman in his article with Markos Moulitsas and Brad DeLong? Moreover, should I assume it was an accident, not a tactic on your part, to shift from the topic of Krugman's article to the specific statements made by Moulitsas and DeLong which are not compatible with the content and arguments made by Krugman in his article ? I assume it was an accident on your part because I have no evidence that these associations were intentional. What evidence do you have to support your claim that the National Jewish Democratic Council is striving to apply guilt-by-association as a tactic?

JP: "violence accounts for <1% of even the worst politicians speech whereas violence accounts for >50% of all video games and many movies."

There's a distinction that needs to be made between the effect of being *exposed* to violent pictures/stories/language and being *incited to anger* by someone using stories that, when taken to a logical conclusion, can be used to justify violent action.

With regard to the impact of being exposed to violence, statistics show that violent crimes among juveniles have been on the decline even as games have increased both in their prevalence and their degree of being graphic. Similarly, studies have found a decrease in rates of rape that coincides with increased availability of pornography.

The problem with people like Sarah Palin, Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck, Michelle Bachmann, Bill O'reilly, Ann Coulter, etc, etc, is that they contribute to a culture of hate that leads people to believe that violence is justified (for example: proud to be an American + owe a debt to the people who died to give you your freedom + your freedoms are being stolen + your grandma is going to be killed + the president is a fraud who pals around with terrorists = violence is justified).

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