Hearing voices: Is political talk producing acts of hate?

U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords - target of an apparent assassination - gets a hug from a supporter at election party Nov. 2, after her victory over a tea party candidate..
U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords - target of an apparent assassination - gets a hug from a supporter at election party Nov. 2, after her victory over a tea party candidate..
Posted: January 10, 2011

IT WAS A terrible time of anger and rage in America. There was harsh rhetoric blaring from a newer form of political media - talk radio - and a hard-fought election in which Congress turned sharply to the right.

Then an alienated young man committed an act of unspeakable violence. Hardworking federal employees died, and so did young children. The president of the United States sought to change the national conversation.

"Let us let our own children know that we will stand against the forces of fear," the young commander-in-chief told a grieving nation. "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."

And so in the weeks and months that followed 1995's Oklahoma City bombing, which killed 168 people, and President Bill Clinton's memorable eulogy, there was a lot of talk about softening America's political rhetoric. And, arguably, there was some actual toning down of hate speech.

But it didn't last.

Over the past 15 years, it's debatable whether extreme political speech has grown more hateful. But few would argue that what has changed is this: that angry rhetoric and imagery has moved from the narrow back alleys to the broad boulevard of American dialogue, amplified by coast-to-coast cable television and even adopted by the politicians once trusted to tamp down vile words.

"I think the mass media is strongly implicated in this," said David Altheide, a professor specializing in justice issues at Arizona State University and author of Terrorism and the Politics of Fear. He said that there's "a real climate of contentiousness, and action-reaction, and ratcheting things up" on cable TV, and that that tone has been adopted by popular national leaders playing "political theater."

Altheide, like many others in Arizona, has watched his home state become an epicenter of anger in recent years - torn apart by the debate over illegal immigration, racial profiling of Hispanics and the fallout from a wave of bad home loans and mortgage foreclosures.

On Saturday morning, something went horribly wrong in Tucson. A troubled 22-year-old man - rejected by the U.S. military and a local community college, an author of increasingly bizarre Internet rants - walked up to U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords at a supermarket town meeting, shot her in the back of the head, and kept firing.

Giffords is still fighting for her life, but six others died in the barrage of bullets from Jared Lee Loughner's legally purchased Glock semiautomatic pistol, including: a federal judge; a young Giffords political aide; and ex-Phillies manager Dallas Green's 9-year-old granddaughter, once written about as Pennsylvania's "Face of Hope," born hours after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks.

What's unclear is what exactly caused the assassin's warped state of mind. Last night, the Washington Post published e-mails from a community-college classmate complaining last fall about Loughner's outbursts and writing that "[h]e is one of those whose picture you see on the news, after he has come into class with an automatic weapon."

No mention of Palin

Loughner's Internet writings referred to obscure conspiracy theories espoused by British far-fringe muse David Icke, and to Loughner's worries about paper currency, an increasingly popular topic on the far right. But he also never expressly mentioned the iconic political figures of either the Right or the Left in the polarized America of the 2010s.

He never mentioned Sarah Palin, the GOP's 2008 vice-presidential candidate and tea-party heroine, who nevertheless was the target of widespread, sharp criticism over the weekend for her political committee's use of images of rifle crosshairs to show members of Congress she was targeting for defeat in 2010 - a list that included Giffords.

On Saturday, Palin published a statement on Facebook offering her "sincere condolences" over the Giffords shooting, but that didn't stop the labeling of the Palin "crosshairs" ad as Exhibit A of mainstream politicians endorsing violent rhetoric.

Last night, Philadelphia U.S. Rep. Bob Brady told CNN that he plans to introduce legislation - inspired by the Palin episode - to make it a federal crime to use language or symbols that could be perceived as threatening or inciting violence against a member of Congress or a federal official.

"You can't put bull's-eyes or crosshairs on a United States congressman or a federal official," Brady told the network. "I understand [that] this website" - Palin's political-action committee, that is - "that had it on there is no longer in existence. Someone is feeling a little guilty."

Critics say that what's important is not even so much whether a deranged and possibly schizophrenic gunman like Loughner can be linked to specific messages like Palin's, but whether the broader use of apocalyptic and violent rhetoric in traditional politics broadly encourages the unhinged.

Arizona State's Altheide said that extreme mainstream rhetoric may give mentally ill loners like Loughner the idea that their violent anti-social actions will be supported by others.

Philadelphia-based nationally syndicated talk-radio host Michael Smerconish - a crusader for moderation both through his show and through a new, centrist political group called No Labels - agreed that the anything-goes climate in political media creates an incubator for actual violence.

'Incivility reigns'

"The tone today is being set by talk radio and cable TV," Smerconish, who also writes opinion columns for the Daily News and the Inquirer, said by e-mail last night. "Politicians, too, get their fix here and then go to Washington and treat colleagues like they are still on a split screen. Incivility reigns. The only way it changes is if there is some recognition by listeners and viewers that the political entertainment they listen to and watch is actually injurious to the country, and they turn it off."

Still, others wondered - and rightfully so - how it's possible to push for limits on extreme rhetoric without putting a chill into America's cherished traditions of unvarnished free speech.

"Only the tiniest handful of people - most of whom are already behind bars, in psychiatric institutions or on psycho-meds - can be driven to kill by political whispers or shouts," media critic Jack Shafer wrote yesterday on Slate.com. "Asking us to forever hold our tongues lest we awake their deeper demons infantilizes and neuters us, and makes politicians no safer."

Perhaps the only hope for a more civil political discourse in America is voluntary restraint - the kind that Smerconish called for yesterday and that Bill Clinton sought in 1995. In other words, the kind that does not seem to stick.

Yesterday, the most impassioned plea for peace came from Roxanna Green, the mother of the 9-year-old gunned down in Tucson, who told the New York Times: "I think there's been a lot of hatred going on and it needs to stop."

America has not listened to presidents or pundits, but maybe now, finally, it will pay attention to a grieving mom.

Staff writer Catherine Lucey contributed to this report.

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