At the time of this publication, the motive for the attempted murder of Gabrielle Giffords, an Arizonian Democratic congresswomen, is still unclear. There has been wide speculation about the motivation of the suspected shooter, Jared Lee Loughner. He appears to be a paranoid individual with strong anti-government feelings. His YouTube videos are rambling and incoherent (and would probably be pretty amusing if they weren't so morbid at this point) warnings against government controlling citizen's grammar and encouraging people to create their own currency. Law enforcement even found evidence from his home indicates that he planned to assassinate Mrs. Gifford.
What should our response be to such an event? This is certainly a jarring moment for the U.S. Usually, assassinations of government officials take place on the other side of the border.
There have been several suggestions on how to handle this situation. Peter King (R – New York) has taken a somewhat hysterical approach by proposing a bill that would ban firearms within 1,000 feet of elected officials. This misunderstands the situation: anyone with the serious intent to kill a senator with a gun would not care about gun legislation.
Rather than the specific weapon (as political leaders have been getting themselves shot, stabbed, hanged or stoned since Hammurabi), is there a legitimate cause for this seemingly random act of aggression by an apparent lunatic?
Much of the blame is being placed on the vitriolic state of American political discourse. Deservedly so. As a society, we spend an incredible amount of money on the power of words. We are inundated daily with advertising, corporate communications, media campaigns and political messages that are all trying to make us feel a certain way. Increasingly, that feeling is isolation and fear. Millions of dollars are being spent on political attack ads that are intentionally divisive. Political and media leaders have profited from demonizing opponents and souring the political landscape. How can we expect to subject people (especially the delusional) to such phenomena and not expect the medium's tone to affect them? Every elected official has someone managing what they say: our leaders understand the portent of words, but they choose to disregard the ultimate impacts in favor of short-term political gain.
Those to blame know it. Minutes after Giffords was shot, a map of several Democratic congressmen with crosshairs on their states was taken off Sarah Palin's website. An aide claimed that the crosshairs were "surveyor's symbols" never meant to encourage guns or violence, a statement that contradicts Palin's own words. The entire structure of Palin's PR is based around isolation and otherization. She offers such sage-like, nonviolent advice like, "Don't retreat, instead- RELOAD!"
Even more egregiously, Giffords' Tea Party opponent held an event titled "Get on Target for Victory in November" that was described as, "Help remove Gabrielle Giffords from office. Shoot a fully automatic M-16 with Jesse Kelly." We should seriously question why a movement is trying to assert that assault rifles have a legitimate place in an election in a free democratic society. They don't.
Former President Bill Clinton had these words to offer: "This is an occasion for us to reaffirm that our political differences shouldn't degenerate into demonization, in the sense that if you don't agree with me you're not a good American." Let us, on both sides of the political spectrum, take this thought to heart. Liberal superiority and dismissiveness can be just as unhelpful to actual discourse as outright aggression, even if it is less dramatic. Hug someone you disagree with.