Should the tragedy in Tucson, Arizona, where Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was gravely wounded in a shooting spree that left 14 injured and six dead, become a "teachable moment" about hate and polarization in American political discourse? Yes—not because of the shooting but because of its aftermath.
First there was the blame game on the left, with New York Times columnist Paul Krugman and others jumping with indecent haste to pin the shootings on right-wing and Tea Party rhetoric. In fact, the gunman, Jared Lee Loughner, turned out to be a severely disturbed man whose delusions weren't even on the outer edge of mainstream politics, left or right. The Krugman spin? Just because Loughner is psychotic does not mean he wasn't influenced by the hateful political climate—despite the lack of any evidence that he was. In other words: Don't confuse me with the facts.
Then came the countercharge from the right, with Sarah Palin accusing the media of concocting a "blood libel" against conservatives. Her use of the controversial term, which historically refers to the anti-Semitic myth of Jewish ritual murder of Christian children, may or may not be offensive; but surely there is something tacky about Palin and her supporters claiming the mantle of victimhood when so many are dead, injured, and grieving. Meanwhile, Rush Limbaugh charges that Loughner "has the full support" of "the Democrat Party."
This is, indeed, a toxic climate. But there are several problems with the calls for a "national conversation" about it after Tucson.
First, it seems clear that the shootings were not politically motivated. Second, some of the rhetoric denounced as extreme—Palin's "Don't retreat, reload" exhortation, or her map with crosshairs on contested congressional districts—is not all that extreme or offensive. These are fairly standard metaphors.
Third, the linkage between vitriol and violence is flimsy at best. Krugman touts a Politico story from last May reporting a spike in threats to members of Congress early in 2010. But a more recent story on the site shows that according to multi-year FBI data, such threats have "plummeted" since 2001. Moreover, they remain rare and hardly ever rise to actual violent intent.
Fourth, the laments about hateful political rhetoric focus almost exclusively on the right: to look for comparable left-wing vitriol, says Krugman, is "a false pretense of balance."
Never mind the once-trendy Bush assassination fantasies, such as the Air America radio skit in which an angry retiree responded to Bush's Social Security reform proposals with gunshots, or the misogynistic anti-Palin rants in leftist publications. Or the smears against opponents of racial preferences in the public sector—accused of racism if they are white, self-loathing if black. Or the posting of a map with the home addresses of donors to the campaign for California's same-sex marriage ban, surely more intimidating than crosshairs on congressional districts. Never mind political violence on the left, from the rampage by protesters at the 2008 Republican National Convention to assaults on conservative speakers on college campuses.
The right is equally prone to seeing the speck in the other's eye and not the log in its own. Defenders of Palin's martial metaphors have called Obama a "thug" over mildly pugilistic comments—for instance, that Republican victory in the congressional elections would mean "hand-to-hand combat" on Capitol Hill. In a column ostensibly urging reconciliation after the Tucson shootings, American Spectator editor Quint Hillyer couldn't resist an aside about how it's really the left that is hateful: liberal journalists on a private email list snickered at a fantasy about Rush Limbaugh dying of a heart attack. (Never mind Ann Coulter's homicide humor, or Michael Savage's radio tirade wishing death on hunger strikers protesting immigration restrictions.)
Should we curb the nasty talk? Any attempt to legislate against it would be both dumb and unconstitutional. But some scoff at voluntary restraint, too. According to Slate columnist Jack Shafer, "Our spirited political discourse, complete with name-calling, vilification—and, yes, violent imagery—is a good thing. Better that angry people unload their fury in public than let it fester and turn septic in private." But that's not necessarily true: as psychologists will tell you, venting anger can also ratchet it up.
It is likely that, as Shafer argues, "thuggish" political language does not raise the risk of violence. But is that all? Should we be content with a political culture in which engaging in debate feels like wading through a sewer, fellow Americans with different views are branded traitors or bigots, and the other side's ideas are automatically rejected? Conservatives warn that talk of improving the tone of public discourse is really an attempt to muzzle the right, and they are correct about the double standards. But do they think anyone will be the poorer if calling the president of the United States a new Hitler, a foreign-born usurper, or a communist is deemed beyond the pale of acceptable speech?
Shafer quotes a 1995 essay by Jonathan Rauch criticizing attempts to ban "the vocabulary of hate." Yet Rauch was rejecting the criminalization of race- or gender-based hate speech; the right response to haters, he wrote, was to "marginalize them, ignore them [and] ridicule them." As a culture, we have largely done that. Perhaps political hate speech—not robust polemics or even incivility, but rhetoric that demonizes domestic political opponents as the enemy—should be treated the same way.