The Tucson Tragedy

By Keith Kloor | January 10, 2011 12:25 pm

I have a bunch of swirling emotions and conflicting thoughts.

But before I get to them, I want to first mention that Tucson, to me, is the beacon of Arizona. As a magazine journalist and editor, I’ve kept a close eye on southern Arizona since 1998, periodically visiting and writing about numerous environmental issues, such as Tucson’s vaunted, far-sighted plan to reign in sprawl and preserve wildlife habitat and the rich biodiversity of the Sonoran desert. Tragedy also stalks Tuscon regularly and anonymously, which rarely makes national headlines, and the community has struggled with that, often honorably.

Over the years, I’ve had the good fortune to meet many dedicated citizens residing in Tuscon and the surrounding area: archaeologists, ecologists, planners, ranchers, state and federal government employees, community organizers. Many of these people have spent countless hours talking with me, both in the field and on the phone. So I’ve got a special fondness for that part of the world and the folks there. I’ve long been in awe of Tucson’s civic engagement with extremely vexing social and environmental issues.

What happened over the weekend outside a suburban supermarket is incomprehensibly tragic for the citizens of Tucson and jarring for the U.S.

Beyond the shock and sadness, there is a larger debate now playing out. On the one hand, I can see Ross Douthat’s point here:

Violence in American politics tends to bubble up from a world that’s far stranger than any Glenn Beck monologue “” a murky landscape where worldviews get cobbled together from a host of baroque conspiracy theories, and where the line between ideological extremism and mental illness gets blurry fast.

On the other hand, those Glen Beck rants get taken a bit too seriously by some of his more deranged listeners, as Timothy Egan informs us:

In my home state Washington, federal officials recently put away a 64-year-old man who threatened, in the most vile language, to kill Senator Patty Murray because she voted for health care reform. Imagine: kill her because she wanted to give fellow Americans a chance to get well. Why would a public policy change prompt a murder threat?

Prosecutors here in Washington State told me that the man convicted of making the threats was using language that, in some cases, came word-for-word from Glenn Beck, the Fox demagogue. Every afternoon Charles A. Wilson would sit in his living room and stuff his head with Beck, a man who spouts scary nonsense to millions. Of course, Beck didn’t make the threats or urge his followers to do so.

But it was Beck who said “the war is just beginning,” after the health care bill was passed. And it was Beck who re-introduced the paranoid and racist rants of a 1950s-era John Birch Society supporter, W. Cleon Skousen, who said a one-world government cabal was plotting a takeover.

Douthat, in his column, argues that both the Right and the Left traffic in vitriol:

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.

Ah, but that’s not an accurate depiction of the rhetorical landscape, says Paul Krugman:

Where’s that toxic rhetoric coming from? Let’s not make a false pretense of balance: it’s coming, overwhelmingly, from the right. It’s hard to imagine a Democratic member of Congress urging constituents to be “armed and dangerous” without being ostracized; but Representative Michele Bachmann, who did just that, is a rising star in the G.O.P.

And there’s a huge contrast in the media. Listen to Rachel Maddow or Keith Olbermann, and you’ll hear a lot of caustic remarks and mockery aimed at Republicans. But you won’t hear jokes about shooting government officials or beheading a journalist at The Washington Post. Listen to Glenn Beck or Bill O’Reilly, and you will.

(Krugman doesn’t provide a link to Bill O’Reilly’s sick joke, so let me oblige with the Washington Post columnist’s response.)

E.J. Dionne Jr. at The Washington Post echoes Krugman here:

Let’s begin by being honest. It is not partisan to observe that there are cycles to violent rhetoric in our politics. In the late 1960s, violent talk (and sometimes violence itself) was more common on the far left. But since President Obama’s election, it is incontestable that significant parts of the American far right have adopted a language of revolutionary violence in the name of overthrowing “tyranny.”

It is Obama’s opponents who carried guns to his speeches and cited Jefferson’s line that the tree of liberty “must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.”

So where do we go from here? “The more pressing question,” Matt Bai writes in yesterday’s NYT,

is where this all ends “” whether we will begin to re-evaluate the piercing pitch of our political debate in the wake of Saturday’s shooting, or whether we are hurtling unstoppably into a frightening period more like the late 1960s.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Tucson
MORE ABOUT: politics, Tucson
  • Jonathan Gilligan

    The links between right-wing rhetoric and the violence sound to me suspiciously like the links people have tried to draw after school shootings between violence in entertainment media (movies, videogames, rap music) and the shooters’ behavior.

    In addition to what you’ve cited above, Jack Shafer in Slate is worth reading, although he creates a bit of a straw man when he conflates the calls for voluntary moderation of rhetoric with the spectre of censorship.

  • kim

    We note where blame was placed, for the act of a madman.
    ===========

  • kim

    I note this, from elsewhere on the web:  ‘Paul Krugman, who types at the speed of hate,’

    H/t TM
    ====

  • http://collide-a-scape.com Keith Kloor

    You’re absolutely right, Jonathan. I recall the debate over Dungeons & Dragons, and the movie Natural Born killers, when “media violence,” as Katha Pollitt, noted at the time, was the “the trendy cause.”

    I said I was “conflicted” in my post because I too am dubious of this kind of cause and effect argument. At the same time, the rhetoric of some conservative political commentators (and politicians) is pretty charged.

     

  • http://collide-a-scape.com Keith Kloor

    Peter Beinart has a thought-provoking take on this that departs from the liberal pack:

    “Had the shooters’ name been Abdul Mohammed, you’d be hearing the familiar drumbeat about the need for profiling and the pathologies of Islam. But since his name was Jared Lee Loughner, he gets called “mentally unstable”; the word “terrorist” rarely comes up. When are we going to acknowledge that good old-fashioned white Americans are every bit as capable of killing civilians for a political cause as people with brown skin who pray to Allah?”

  • http://collide-a-scape.com Keith Kloor

    And here’s a pretty sensible take from the right, relevant to Jonathan’s point:

    “But the sordid temptations of politics are such that people who argue there’s little sensible connection between Hollywood “violence” and real-world violence now suddenly insist that it just takes a silly poster and plenty of over-heated rhetoric to inspire America’s Top Kooks to come out of the closet, all guns blazing. And of course the reverse is also true: people happy to blame Grand Theft Auto for just about anything now insist there’s no connection at all between the tone of political discourse (“Second Amendment Solutions!”) and some nut taking these notions just a little bit too seriously.”

  • HugeDifference

    I’ll suggest people to youtube the RFK speech “on the mindless menace of violence”.

    Searching for blame on one side or another is counterproductive. Both sides have plenty of idiots busy dehumanizing their opponents. And both sides have made some accurate points about the excesses of the other side without acknowledging their own bullshit.

    The right is disingenuous when they claim to be first amendment supporters, second amendment supporters, but oh yeah, those are surveyor marks not crosshairs.

    The left is disingenuous (and my hero Paul Krugman is right in there too) when they write one day of the deniers, and the racism, and there is a lot of anti-semitism and misandry on the left as well, and then the next day the are decrying right wing hate speech. As the right points out, after the Fort Hood shooting we were immediately told not to jump to conclusions about motives or call it religious terrorism, and now the same people jump to tell us about the hate speech from the right.

    And the journalists and politicians are complicit as well.  Imagine going into a profession that is 99% words, speeches, and calls to action, and then making the claim that their words have no effect on other people’s actions.

  • Bob Koss

    Just in case some are unaware, or have forgotten.
    Here is a link to rhetoric and acts which have emanated from the progressives over the past few years.

    http://michellemalkin.com/2011/01/10/the-progressive-climate-of-hate-an-illustrated-primer-2000-2010/

  • harrywr2

    We live in a world that has always had and always will have unstable individuals.
    The fact that we have relatively few actual events is a tribute to our legal/mental health system which tends to identify these individuals before they do great harm.
    Sooner or later someone is going to fall thru the cracks.

     

  • Zajko

    These are apparently hard cases to talk about without making a lot of causal assumptions that link to the big picture. Last night on the Canadian news I heard it said how no one in the US wants to talk about this in regards to gun control and the American love-affair with guns (a taboo), as if that is self-evidently a big part of the explanation for the event.
    As an opening for discussions regarding culture and discourse, tragedies like this have their uses. But they also end up as evidence for all sorts of claims that will remain indeterminate or unsupportable. A single person’s action thereby become symptomatic of whatever illness supposedly plagues America.
    Well, I think there’s a lot of sick and dangerous rhetoric out there, whether or not it played a major role in this case. There will be no correlation between the words coming out of Glenn Beck’s mouth and the frequency of attempted assassinations, but it sure is meaningful that many Americans feel they are living under an always-impending imposition of whatever form of tyranny.
    Is this even a problem? Not necessarily – vigilance against the abuse of power is always important, but when you’re locked in a battle against the forces of darkness seeking to destroy your nation, your options can look rather limited.
    In sum, I think there may be lessons to learn from this tragedy, but they are likely small and tied to the details of the particular case (were there specific failings that could have prevented it?). The sorts of bigger discussions I would like to see can and should be conducted without reference to this shooting at all.

  • Zajko

    I should add that the comments I heard on CBC last night happened in the context of a discussion between panelists. Canadians have varied (though often condescending) opinions about Americans and their guns, but these tend to go unexpressed. Then something like this happens, and we feel that we actually have something to distinguish our culture from that south of the border. But even though the news media are better behaved in this country, a shooting like this here is certainly not out of the question.

  • kdk33

    A deranged gunman opens fire in a crowd.  The man was obviously and criminally insane.  Crazy people do crazy, and sometimes unspeakably terrible, things.

    The connection between this and the tenor of US politics is as follows:  Not.  One.  Damn.  Thing.

  • http://collide-a-scape.com Keith Kloor

    Bob (8):

    I glanced through Malkin’s post and were those shameful images/words coming from liberal commentators on tv or radio? Any from leading Dem politicians? Looks like fringe groups or activists to me.

    The point being, the nasty incitement on the Right is stirred up by the likes of Limbaugh, Beck, O’Reilly, etc.

    Big quantitative difference.

  • Stu

    I don’t see a big quantitative difference. Only months ago Keith, you were lambasting (correctly) Anthony Watts for conflating the actions of the deranged Lee with ‘Warmism’. Where was Lee getting his ideas though? Not from street level graffiti- but mainstream science, amplified by left wing politics. Then there was the 10:10 video, which seemed to not alarm you as much as the Watts/Lee headline. That ad was due to run in cinemas and had big support from the Guardian. I’ve never actually seen a more violent ad. Definitely not ‘street level’ messaging.

    Maybe it’s best if I don’t stick my oar in too much here, as I’m not an American and therefore am fairly distanced from what goes on on a day to day level there. But it sounds to me like this is subtle right wing bashing where I would say that both sides are equally guilty of dehumanising the other. Funny how you went from your wonderful quote of the day post to this.

  • Tom Fuller

    It’s not about Arizona. It’s not about Left/Right. It’s only tangentially about the gun culture.

    This is about education. Not book learning, but how we learn to behave within a society. We are not very good at this at this particular point in time in this particular country.

  • Stu

    PS- I would agree with Keith that dealing with these things, one can become conflicted. In the end I’d say it’s about psychological mysteries and the degree in which we should blame the messages over the people acting on them. My point really is that neither side is blameless (equally), but I can’t offer any opinion about the degree of blame we should be assigning to these things. When it comes to extreme violence, thankfully there is a very long path from thought, to word, to deed. I find I can’t really say anything too much about it.
     

  • http://collide-a-scape.com Keith Kloor

    Do I think some on the Left are guilty of excessive political rhetoric that is emotionally charged? If you’ve been reading this blog, then surely you know I do.

    But I’m talking about the difference between a Beck/O’Reilly and Olberman/Maddow. Big, big difference in style, volume, and rhetoric.

  • PDA

    I’ll take the opportunity to agree with Tom Fuller, but gloss it a bit to say that we’ve done a very good job of teaching ourselves to be as disagreeable as possible when we disagree.

    I spent the holidays in the Very Polite Middle West of the USA. Even there, political affiliation is pretty hard to distinguish from its bastard cousin, sports fandom. You can – literally – be put in the hospital for wearing the wrong cap. And it’s egged on at so many levels: look at reality TV, where people are put in a situation that compels them to behave as badly as possible: like shaking a jar full of wasps.

    We simply have no education in how or when to make our points, and how to handle disagreement. As I noted in a very different context, my old Zen teacher always used to suggest that “Before you speak, ask yourself if what you have to say will improve on silence.” Political discourse on- and off-line is increasingly beginning to resemble one of those first-person shooters: kill or be killed.

  • kim

    To Loughner, Giffords represented the government and the government was messing with his mind and his money. So assassination was perfectly logical and perfectly psychotic.

    There was no politics involved in this act.  There was simple stark madness.  Note the initial and persisting attempt to blame the right for its rhetoric.  Such assassination is also perfectly logical and perfectly psychotic.
    =================

  • Stu

    Ok sure- I can’t even claim to know who Olberman or Maddow are so I’m obviously out of my depth when it comes to high profile American media personalities.

     

  • http://organizingentropy.typepad.com/blog/ Andy

    Here’s a question:

    Why is almost everyone assuming that the current state of political rhetoric in this country had anything to do with the motivation for this man to commit murder?  There is, as of yet, no evidence that politics or political rhetoric had anything at all to do with it.  The whole debate here may be completely irrelevant to the crime.
     

    We don’t know yet this man’s political leanings (if any), his partisanship (if any), much less his specific motivation for these murders (we are starting to get a bit on that). Anyone who insists that it was due to the rhetoric of political opponents, the symbols used on partisan media, or politics at all is making an assumption at best and exploiting the tragic deaths of innocents for political advantage at worst.

    The truth about this young man will come out in due time at which point we can make a coherent judgment about the various factors that led to his crime as well as the appropriate response.  The confidence with which so many assuredly draw causation where none yet exists is deeply disturbing to me.  And Keith, I have to say in that your profession hasn’t comported itself well at all in this regard, though I do appreciate that you are at least trying to take a nuanced view here.

  • http://www.spiriteaglehome.com Jim Owen

    After the 2004 election, I monitored the Daily Kos where there was a long discussion as to whetherh killing Republicans could be considered “immoral”. 

    IIRC, it was Obama and the Dems who called “war” re the Health Care bill, although I’d have to check that to be 100% certain. 

    The rhetoric isn’t confined to one side at all. 

    Re: the recent events, this has not been mentioned here yet:
    http://www.powerlineblog.com/archives/2011/01/028111.php

    Personally, I am a gun owner and user – and I hate those who misuse guns, abuse animals or kill innocent people. 

  • http://collide-a-scape.com Keith Kloor

    I’m really struggling with this. Because I agree about the rush to judgment.

    Both Tom Fuller and PDA make excellent points, esp the latter when he writes “we’ve done a very good job of teaching ourselves to be as disagreeable as possible when we disagree.”

    And I agree with Zajko that most people don’t seem to want to talk about the gun issue, though it was the focus of Gail Collins’ op-ed:

    “the amazing thing about the reaction to the Giffords shooting is that virtually all the discussion about how to prevent a recurrence has been focusing on improving the tone of our political discourse. That would certainly be great. But you do not hear much about the fact that Jared Loughner came to Giffords’s sweet gathering with a semiautomatic weapon that he was able to buy legally because the law restricting their sale expired in 2004 and Congress did not have the guts to face up to the National Rifle Association and extend it.”

    Upthread, Andy writes (my emphasis): “Anyone who insists that it was due to the rhetoric of political opponents, the symbols used on partisan media, or politics at all is making an assumption at best and exploiting the tragic deaths of innocents for political advantage at worst.”

    Here’s the thing: in all the mainstream commentary I’ve read from people who are playing up this angle, nobody is insisting this. Yes, they’re making an implicit argument that there is a connection, but I think in the larger sense, the issue of inflammatory and violent political rhetoric has become the focus of national discussion for a number of reasons:

    1) There’s the video interview of Giffords talking about the overheated political climate after her office is vandalized on the eve of her yes vote on health care legislation. She also mention’s Palin’s crosshairs on the electoral map. This has been a powerful visual on TV played up as perhaps “prophetic.”

    2) We’re not that far removed from the volatile mid-term election and images of those tea party protests during a campaign year.

    3) The political partisanship has been intense since Obama’s election (both sides responsible, but Republicans were the party of NO until they won the House–now they have to be the party of MAYBE)

    4) The coarsening of political discourse and the influence of Beck’s angry tirades has been an undercurrent in the last year (he’s been the subject of many cover stories, including NY Times mag).

    So I think these factors have converged in a way that has made political dialogue the focal point, even though, as Andy and others have noted, there is no evidence thus far for it being a cause in this event.

    The irony is this: this nation needs to have a soul-searching debate about the inflamed climate of political discourse. And that debate is happening now, but perhaps and more than likely triggered by an unrelated act of violence.

  • HugeDifference

    Try some Occam’s Razor with a side of Bayesian Analysis.

  • http://collide-a-scape.com Keith Kloor

    FWIW: Andrew Sullivan is not shy about making an implicit connection, as he deconstructs this David Brooks column.

  • http://organizingentropy.typepad.com/blog/ Andy

    Keith,

    The problem as I see it isn’t so much that people are insisting it was due to rhetoric – rather I think it’s the case that so many people view a causal relationship as a given fact that’s the problem.   Again, look at the media coverage – the transition from coverage of the details of the shooting to “analysis” of political rhetoric is seamless.  It’s a classic case of mirror-imaging.

    I’m all for discussing political rhetoric and I’m a big proponent of discussing issues with a moderate tone, but that’s not happening either.  Everyone is saying they want less vitriolic rhetoric as long as it’s in the context of blaming the other guy for their rhetoric.  Where is the introspection?  Where are the pundits and politicians who are willing to take a positive step rather than just point fingers at the evil “other?”

    If anything, I think this incident is making political rhetoric worse.

  • http://collide-a-scape.com Keith Kloor

    I hear you, but the problem is that for many liberal commentators, this terrible tragedy has uncorked a lot of built-up frustration with the climate of political discourse. For example, see Stephen Budiansky, doubling down here.

    Also, I don’t think it’s fair to lump the straight coverage of this event with the “analysis” or commentary, which is mostly done by opinion columnists. (However, perhaps you are thinking of the kind of analysis done by Matt Bai in the NYT, which I cited in this post.)

    Additionally, the kind of introspection you would like to see doesn’t happen in the immediate aftermath of such an event, when emotions are raw. But such introspection will have to be expressed by the likes of Palin and Beck and Republican leaders, as well as leading liberals and Democrats–not merely op-ed columnists. And I haven’t seen evidence of that yet, but like I said, it’s still way too early.

  • Pascvaks

    It is good to reflect on these occassions and consider ourselves.  They do seem to happen quite frequently in our “modern” world with so many occupants and such rapid communications.  But is that true?  Really?  No doubt someone has a “study” on the subject that can divide us on these questions as well.  How we love to argue!  How emotional we can be. How soon we jump to solutions to make things (and people) the way they “ought’a be”.  Does a few words scribbled on a piece of paper change anything really?  Really?  What needs to change?  Words?  Or People?  Hummmmmm.. tough nut ain’t it?

  • HugeDifference

    It’s human nature, and formalized in the scientific method, to form hypothesis (perhaps multiple hypothesis) then seek out evidence, and tests, and falsification.

    I don’t recall a great deal about the scientific method that suggests scientists or humans should examine a situation, throw all the evidence up to the ceiling, unjudged a head of time, and then post facto fit a theory to match what they determine to be facts.

    (And I could be wildly off here, but as Heisenberg and EPR show, facts can change depending on how you observe them.)

    So I am not sure where you and so many others think that this business of making reasonable assumptions is so horrible of us.

    It seems a legal thing more than a logic or reasoning or deductive thing.  Yes, you don’t want the jury to prejudge the defendant.

    Similarly, on Diane Rehm this morning, she kept on referring to Loughner as the alleged shooter.  What purpose what value is the word “alleged?”  Is that coming from a journalistic/reporting need, or is it satisfying some lawyer somewhere at some newspaper.

    And as I said a day or so ago, imagine all the politicians, and all the journalists whose careers are 99.999% words now telling us that there is no connection between words and action.

    My fellow citizens of the world: ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man.

  • HugeDifference

    Well, I didn’t quite get that quote wrong, but of course the part I wanted to cut and paste is the previous sentence:

    And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.

  • HugeDifference

    Okay, not to monopolize the comments, when Sullivan and others say things like:

    “And so on. By 5.47 pm, we have aired a possible diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia. I know David isn’t accusing me of jumping to some flat Tea Party conclusion; but I find this notion that in real time we should not even be discussing or airing or debating the political and rhetorical climate that preceded this to be a dangerous piety.”

    That dangerous piety they are talking about is what Bill Mahrer refers to as political correctness (as well perhaps as multi-culti bias).  And I think that’s the elephant in this room no one speaks of.

  • http://organizingentropy.typepad.com/blog/ Andy

    Keith,

    I do understand that emotions run high but I couldn’t help but get the sense that this was an “aha” moment for many on the left – an opportunity to finally “prove” how bad their opponents were.  And many jumped into that meme with both feet immediately upon hearing the news.  Maybe they acted based on emotion – but it sure looked a lot like cynical political opportunism.

    As far as the media goes, I agree, at least based on what I’ve read, that the print media has done a better job.  TV media though – it’s pretty ugly IMO.

  • JD Ohio

    The disgraceful hypocrisy and opportunism of the left in trying to manipulate the act of a clearly crazy individual is beneath contempt.  Krugman in particular has no standing, having labelled those opposed to CO2 restrictions as “traitors.”  Additionally, Hansen, Gore, Michael Mann, and many others continually slander those opposed to CO2 restrictions, by using the “denier” innuendo to underhandedly and falsely link those opposed to CO2 restrictions to Nazi deniers.  There is as much extremism and hate coming from the left as emanates from the right.

    JD

  • http://www.spiriteaglehome.com Jim Owen

    Keith –
    Re: Gail Collins’ op-ed –
    But you do not hear much about the fact that Jared Loughner came to Giffords’s sweet gathering with a semiautomatic weapon that he was able to buy legally because the law restricting their sale expired in 2004 and Congress did not have the guts to face up to the National Rifle Association and extend it.”

    The law she speaks of was the “Assault weapon” ban, which in fact banned guns other than assault weapons. Assault weapons are, by definition, fully automatic not semi-automatic. But that’s beside the point here. 

    The point is that the pistol Loughner used may be regulated by the various states, but has never been banned anywhere in this country.
    And the renewal of the “Assault weapon” ban would not have prevented him from buying or using it because the pistol was not covered by that ban.  It might have prevented him from buying the high capacity magazines – but I doubt it. Those magazines could be bought on the open market even during the ban, because there was no ban on the “sale” of those magazines – only on the manufacture or importation of such.    

    Collins’ hysteria would (should) have been tempered by just a little knowledge. And from my POV it is another disgusting example of using tragedy to gain poliltical advantage.  

  • Jon P

    If anyone takes the Oreilly “threats” as any thing other than a joke, than you must have also taken Obama seriously when he said “If they bring a knife to the fight, we’ll bring a gun.” The tragedy in Tuscon had zero to do with political ideology and rhetoric whether left or right. Frankly those who are blaming one side (primarily the right) are sick pathetic political hacks.

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Collide-a-Scape

Collide-a-Scape is a wide-ranging blog forum that explores issues at the nexus of science, culture and society.

About Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a NYC-based journalist, and an adjunct professor of journalism at New York University. His work has appeared in Slate, Science, Discover, and the Washington Post magazine, among other outlets. From 2000 to 2008, he was a senior editor at Audubon Magazine. In 2008-2009, he was a Fellow at the University of Colorado’s Center for Environmental Journalism, in Boulder, where he studied how a changing environment (including climate change) influenced prehistoric societies in the U.S. Southwest. He covers a wide range of topics, from conservation biology and biotechnology to urban planning and archaeology.

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