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Tucson Tragedy Roundup

Sorry for my lack of postings recently. I needed a bit of a mental break and have been feeling a little under the weather. Also, I didn’t want to react too reflexively to such a horrible atrocity. Here’s a small collection of some commentary from around the web I found worthwhile to think about.

Ross Douthat (01/09/11):

But if overheated rhetoric and martial imagery really led inexorably to murder, then both parties would belong in the dock. (It took conservative bloggers about five minutes to come up with Democratic campaign materials that employed targets and crosshairs against Republican politicians.) When our politicians and media loudmouths act like fools and zealots, they should be held responsible for being fools and zealots. They shouldn’t be held responsible for the darkness that always waits to swallow up the unstable and the lost.

We should remember, too, that there are places where mainstream political movements really are responsible for violence against their rivals. (Last week’s assassination of a Pakistani politician who dared to defend a Christian is a stark reminder of what that sort of world can look like.) Not so in America: From the Republican leadership to the Tea Party grass roots, all of Gabrielle Giffords’s political opponents were united in horror at the weekend’s events.

Jonathan Chait (01/12/11):

Likewise, consider Obama’s observation that the tragedy could usher in greater civility “not because a simple lack of civility caused this tragedy, but rather because only a more civil and honest public discourse can help us face up to our challenges as a nation.” I completely agree with the logic of that statement: If the Tucson shootings got us thinking about the need for greater civility, and greater civility is a good thing in itself, then we should pursue it even if it turns out to be unrelated to the shooting. In the same way, an alcoholic who gives up drinking after wrecking his car would have my full endorsement even if he turned out to be sober when he got into the accident.

But, of course, there are lots of things the Tucson shooting got us thinking about even if they don’t turn out to have caused it—like the need for tougher gun laws or better mental health care. It’s possible that neither of these things would have saved lives this past weekend. But, in the aftermath of Tucson, we can be forgiven for thinking they might make our nation a little better. (The same probably goes for a conservative movement that’s less infatuated with the language of armed rebellion.)

Glenn Greenwald (01/12/11):

What Galston is doing here is what the American political class reflexively does in the wake of every tragedy:  it immediately seeks to exploit the resulting trauma and emotion to justify all-new restrictions on basic liberties (such as the right not to be locked away against one’s will in the absence of a crime or a serious threat to others) and all-new government powers. Every traumatic event — in the immediate, emotionally consuming aftermath —  leads to these sorts of knee-jerk responses.  The 9/11 attack immediately gave rise to the Patriot Act, warrantless eavesdropping, a torture regime, due-process-free imprisonment, and ultimately an attack on Iraq.

Andrew Sullivan (01/12/11):

One would have thought that Palin, like any responsible person in her shoes right now, could have mustered some sort of regret about the unfortunate coincidence of what she had done in the campaign and what happened afterwards. Wouldn’t you? If you had publicly defended a map with cross-hairs on a congresswoman’s district, and that congresswoman had subsequently been shot, would you not be able to express even some measure of regret at what has taken place, even while denying, rightly, any actual guilt? Could you not even acknowledge the possibility that your critics have and had a point, including the chief Palin-critic on this, who happens to be struggling for her life in hospital, Gabrielle Giffords.

Conor Friedersdoft (01/09/11):

The strongest case against these people isn’t that their rhetoric inspires political violence. It’s that they frequently utter indefensible nonsense. The problem isn’t their tone. It’s that the substance of what they’re saying is so blinkered that it isn’t even taken seriously by their ideological allies (even if they’re too cowardly, mercenary or team driven to admit as much).

They’re in a tough spot these days partly because it’s impossible for them to mount the defense of their rhetoric that is true: “I am a frivolous person, and I don’t choose my words based on their meaning. Rather, I behave like the worst caricature of a politician. If you think my rhetoric logically implies that people should behave violently, you’re mistaken – neither my audience nor my peers in the conservative movement are engaged in a logical enterprise, and it’s unfair of you to imply that people take what I say so seriously that I can be blamed for a real world event. Don’t you see that this is all a big game? This is how politics works. Stop pretending you’re not in on the joke.”

Matthew Yglesias (01/09/11):

The idea that it’s even coherent to talk about “politicizing” the attempted assassination of a politician strikes me as questionable. But since typically people die without being assassinated, and there are still always allegations of nefarious “politicization” of their deaths, I’d like to go on record as saying that when I decided to write about politics and policy for a living that wasn’t just a weird coincidence. I actually really care about these things. They’re very important to me. And if I die tomorrow or next week or next month or next year or (hopefully!) decades from now and still-living allies want to take the occasion to try to advance progress on the issues I care about, I would applaud that.

Andreas Kluth giving a historical perspective (01/09/11):

But it seems that a taboo had been broken, a precedent set. Something unthinkable had become thinkable: Political violence.

A decade after Tiberius’s murder, Gaius Gracchus (pictured above) followed in his brother’s footsteps. He, too, got himself elected tribune. He, too, intended to launch reforms.

And again, a mob of senators and their supporters came for him. Gaius fled to a grove and killed himself, as the attackers murdered his supporters.

Another outlier, they told themselves. An exception. Never to be repeated.

And yet, it was repeated. Over the next century the Romans — a people always well-armed, often for the right reasons — began flashing blades to intimidate other Romans in any disagreement. The tone of debate changed. The incidents of political violence became more frequent, and worse.

A taboo once toppled is difficult to re-erect.

Ezra Klein (01/12/11):

But will congressional aides make for good bodyguards, even if they get “a bit of training?” I doubt it. Because field organizers actually don’t know how to find the one nut who will pull a gun every few decades, they’ll start throwing out lots of people who seem a little off. Better than safe than shot at. But if you’ve ever been to a community meeting, “seems a little off” pretty much describes the whole room. And people who “seem a little off” should have access to their member of Congress, too.

[…]

And all this would solve … what? In the past three decades, there haven’t been five members of Congress shot by constituents. There haven’t been two. There’s been one. And it’s not at all clear that most of these proposal would’ve even prevented that shooting.

I don’t want to downplay the horror of what happened in Arizona. But attaching a police officer to every congressional event or trying to train aides who’re supposed to be listening to constituents to instead try and assess the threat level they pose is not the right way to grieve. We’ve suffered a tragedy, but there’s no evidence, at least as of yet, that legislators are in much everyday danger. That’s in stark contrast with, say, people who live in Detroit, who perhaps could use more security.

I think President Obama hit the right notes in his speech last night. Most importantly: “If, as has been discussed in recent days, their death helps usher in more civility in our public discourse, let us remember it is not because a simple lack of civility caused this tragedy–it did not–but rather because only a more civil and honest public discourse can help us face up to our challenges as a nation.”

It is clear that uncivil discourse didn’t cause this assassination attempt and I think incivility can, at times, be valuable rhetorically. Yet, more civility among our public officials and public discourse is worth striving for if only to focus our attention on policy differences not personality or partisanship. I think that places me closest to Conor in worrying more (not only) about substance than tone.

Should policy changes result from this atrocity? Possibly but only if we deal with the real dilemma of balancing Greenwald’s fear of reflexive restrictions of liberty with the sober policy assessment that Chait proposes. I admit I’m a bit skeptical of how dispassionate our policy makers can be, but that doesn’t mean any policy changes are automatically harmful or unnecessary.

Dealing with political assassination without diverting police resources away from vulnerable communities to protect against political lightning strikes is difficult. Kluth reminds us that political assassination can have critical repercussions to the health of a republic. In Rome, it prevented reformers from acting. Changing how we replace our public officials if dead or ill is a prudent protection against political saboteurs. I haven’t thought enough about it to offer much, but making sure their replacement would be acceptable to the elected official seems reasonable.

Not to be petty, but in order to contrast a bit with the understandable religiosity of last night’s memorial let me thank the heroism of the people that fought back against the gunman and the goodness of the medical community that is doing their best to care for those injured. People cause tragedies and people need to fix them.

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  1. Dave
    January 13, 2011 at 6:36 pm

    I also recommend Jon Stewart’s comment.

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