Wednesday, January 12, 2011

US Politics: Turmoil in Tucson Distorts Political Process

Gabrielle Giffords | Credit:

By Ernest Corea Courtesy IDN-InDepth NewsAnalysis

WASHINGTON D.C. (IDN) - The turmoil in Tucson, Arizona on the January 8 caused personal disaster, familial catastrophe, and a grotesque distortion of the political process. In a democracy, clashing views are meant to be explored and resolved through discourse. The force of argument should prevail over the argument of force. That assumption was stood on its head in Tucson, where a shooting spree killed six, and injured fourteen.

Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords is an exception to what is considered the norm. She is a Democratic representative from Arizona. She was clearly the intended primary target of the shooting spree.

Giffords spoke out last year on the core principle that governs decision-making in a democracy. That was at a MSNBC interview shortly after her office in Tucson, Arizona was vandalized by gunfire when she voted for the Health Care legislation which the Republican Party, now holding a majority in the House of Representatives, is pledged to remove from the statute books.

In the U.S., she emphasized, change comes through the ballot box and not through outbursts of violence. Indeed.


By most accounts, it was around 10 am on Saturday (January 8) when Giffords had just opened her "Congress In Your Corner" event, a mini "town hall" meeting at which constituents can speak to their representative face-to-face, when a gunman came up, shot her in the head at close range, then indiscriminately sprayed the crowd with bullets.

A bystander -- a woman -- intervened when the gunman was attempting to reload and his killing spree was slowed down. He was brought down by others, and held until law enforcement officers arrived.

The dead included U.S. District Judge John Roll, congressional aides, and a nine-year-old girl. The latter, recently elected to the students' council in her school had gone along to the "Congress in Your Corner" meeting to observe and understand how the nation's political system works. She never returned.

FBI director Robert S. Mueller III who is in Tucson to oversee the gathering told a Sunday (January 9) news conference that investigations were continuing, to determine "why someone would commit such a heinous act and whether anyone else was involved."

Obama who issued a warm statement of public sympathy wishing Congresswoman Giffords complete recovery, asked for a moment of silence at 11 am Monday (Januayr 10) in honour of those killed and injured, and ordered that all U.S. flags should be flown at half mast. Obama and first lady Michelle Obama led the observance at the south lawn of the White House.

Federal charges have been filed against 22-year-old Jared Lee Loughner for his alleged involvement in the shooting spree. He has so far not cooperated with police, citing his constitutional right to remain silent.

The charges being brought in three days represents extraordinarily quick action and all those engaged in the case are to be commended. Unfortunately, quick action will not resurrect the dead or miraculously heal the injured.


Responding to a question at a media conference, Sheriff Clarence Dupnik of Pima county in which the shooting spree took place said: "I'd just like to say that when you look at unbalanced people, how they are -- how they respond to the vitriol that comes out of certain mouths, about tearing down the government, the anger, the hatred, the bigotry that goes on in this country is getting to be outrageous. And unfortunately, Arizona, I think, has become sort of the capital. We have become the mecca for prejudice and bigotry."

The issue of poisonous rhetoric and its impact on patterns of behaviour will no doubt be the topic of much discussion in coming weeks. Purveyors of poisonous rhetoric have already begun to push back, taking the sheriff to task for having dared to speak out on the issues. The state of mind of the suspect in the Tucson tragedy will also be a talking point, and will legitimately be a matter to be canvassed and adjudicated in a court of law, not in public conversation.

The wider point, however, that poisonous rhetoric has a tendency to overcome and overpower some elements in society needs to be addressed, because political rhetoric in the U.S. has become increasingly inflamed and inflammatory.

Sarah Palin, speaking in militaristic terms, has urged her supporters: "Don’t retreat, instead RELOAD." The unguided missile from Minnesota, Congresswoman Michele Bachmann, has advised her constituents to be "armed and dangerous" when considering proposals for energy and taxation.

Ms. Sharron Angle, who was recently defeated by Senator Harry Reid in Nevada, talked about people looking for "Second Amendment remedies" and suggested that the best remedy was to "take out" Harry Reid. In some quarters, "taking out" somebody is the equivalent of "terminating with extreme prejudice."


Bob Schieffer, the wise and prescient anchor of the CBS Sunday program "Face the Nation" put his finger on the problem when he wrote on his web site under the title: Rhetoric with Consequences:

"Democracy's arguments have never been pretty, but technology has changed the American dialogue. Because we can now know of problems instantly, we expect answers immediately. And when we don't get them, we let everyone know in no uncertain terms.

"We scream and shout -- hurl charges without proof. Those on the other side of the argument become not opponents but enemies.

"Dangerous, inflammatory words are used with no thought of consequence. All's fair if it makes the point. Worse, some make great profit just fanning the flames.

"Which wouldn't amount to much if the words reached only the sane and the rational, but the new technology insures a larger audience. Those with sick and twisted minds hear us, too, and are sometimes inflamed by what the rest of us often discard as hollow and silly rhetoric. And so violence becomes part of the argument."

This analysis applies both to the U.S. and to other countries where political assassinations have frequently been preceded by months of vitriolic speechmaking.

Speakers are titillated by their own words, or those of their speechwriters. They rarely have the intention of encouraging murder. They revel in the vocal support their angry words stir up, and they move on to their next engagement, leaving behind at least a handful in the audience who are sufficiently disaffected to want to take matters into their own hands.

It takes only one such person to snuff out a life or lives -- motivated by no more than poisonous rhetoric.

This was the critically important point that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) attempted to make when it said in a report that the economy and the election of the first black president were "unique drivers for rightwing radicalization and recruitment."

The report referred to "lone wolves and small terrorist cells embracing violent rightwing extremist ideology [as] the most dangerous domestic terrorism threat in the United States." The DHS withdrew its report in the face of a storm of right-wing protests.


During the media interview after her office in Tucson was vandalized (see above), Giffords insisted that some ways of "firing people up," were unacceptable. "We're on Sarah Palin's targeted list," she said, "but the thing is that the way she has it depicted has the crosshairs of a gun sight over our district. When people do that, they've got to realize there are consequences to that action."

(An aide to Ms. Palin has said that the crosshairs were not meant to evoke violence but to function along the lines of surveyors' symbols seen on maps. Palin herself, however, has referred to her 20 crosshairs, each over a district where she wanted to defeat the Democrat, as "bullseye icons." Her exact words: "Remember months ago ‘bullseye' icon used 2 target the 20 Obamacare-lovin' incumbent seats? We won 18 out of 20. 90% success rate;T'aint bad." SarahPalinUSA)

One of the interviewers responded to Gifford that "in fairness, campaign rhetoric and war rhetoric have been interchangeable for years." What, he wanted to know, did she think were Palin’s intentions."

Gifford looked him in the eye, and said: "You know, I can't say, I'm not Sarah Palin." She added: "But what I can say is that in the years that some of my colleagues have served -- 20, 30 years -- they've never seen it like this. We have to work out our problems by negotiating, working together, hopefully Democrats and Republicans.

"I understand that this health care bill is incredibly personal, probably the most significant vote cast here for decades, frankly. But the reality is that we've got to focus on the policy, focus on the process, but leaders -- community leaders, not just political leaders -- have to stand back when things get too fired up and say, 'Whoa, let's take a step back here.' "

Sarah Palin is well suited to give the lead, in tribute to Congresswoman Giffords. When she has taken a step back, Palin can use the pause, to change from "reload" to "unload" -- purging herself of any harsh thoughts and words she might harbour. She could then explain to others how the "unload" process works. Wouldn’t that be something? (IDN-InDepthNews/11.01.2011)

Copyright © 2011 IDN-InDepthNews | Analysis That Matters

The writer has served as Sri Lanka's ambassador to Canada, Cuba, Mexico, and the USA. He was Chairman of the Commonwealth Select Committee on the media and development, Editor of the Ceylon 'Daily News' and the Ceylon 'Observer', and was for a time Features Editor and Foreign Affairs columnist of the Singapore 'Straits Times'. He is on the IDN editorial board and President of the Media Task Force of Global Cooperation Council.