In the wake of the atrocity in Arizona on January 8, it is appropriate to discuss civility in political discourse but we need to be very careful to safeguard free speech. We should also recognize that people have deeply held convictions and should not exploit this tragedy to silence or muffle political discourse by shaming people as accessories to violence.
We saw this same phenomenon after the murder of Dr. George Tiller in 2009. Abortion opponents were vilified for allegedly creating an environment where a mentally unstable person could act on statements that abortion is murder. These types of statements were called irresponsible and incendiary, but what about those who actually believe that abortion is murder? Are we expected to lie about our beliefs on the subject for the sake of a false civility?
Bob Schieffer of CBS’ Face the Nation complained that people who disagree with us “become not opponents but enemies.” I think we are making too much of a distinction between the two. Most people want to see political opponents or enemies defeated in elections and/or the defeat of legislation proposed by those opponents or enemies. That does not mean we want to see anyone personally harmed or killed.
The complaints about the state of modern political discourse are overblown because politics has always been a blood sport. I watched a couple campaign commercials by President Lyndon Johnson’s 1964 campaign on YouTube, and I was taken aback by how aggressively negative they were. President Grover Cleveland was taunted in the 1880’s with allegations that he committed adultery and had an illegitimate child. Republicans were literally bribing voters in Indiana during the same decade.
Historian Joseph Cummins told the New York Times in 2007 that after he researched every presidential election between 1789 and 2004, “my answer is that elections are not getting dirtier. They’re just as dirty as they have always been.”
Even with a long history of dirty politics, it is a sad commentary on the state of modern political discourse that we immediately began to cast blame for the shooting on one ideology or another. If one side can demonstrate “angry rhetoric” on the other side, those people are not only wrong but accomplices to violence if a lunatic starts shooting people or setting things on fire.
We saw this locally in 2002, when several acts of eco-terrorism were blamed on the allegedly irresponsible rhetoric of local environmentalists, including some elected officials. This was clearly an attempt to put a chilling effect on their speech. I said then that personal responsibility demands that we place blame for arsons, sabotage and bombings the only place it belongs: with the thugs who commit acts of terror.
After the shots were fired and as the wounded were fighting for their lives, liberals almost immediately tried to blame the shooting on the Tea Party movement while conservatives searched for evidence that Jared Loughner is a Leftist.
But the mass murder in Arizona was not the act of an organized political movement. No matter how the shooter can be characterized ideologically, any large group of people is likely to have a few deranged members. Whether Loughner is mentally ill or simply evil, the acts committed by him are his and his alone, not the actions of the Tea Party or any other group.
The vast majority of people in politics understand that violence is reprehensible and inexcusable, and has absolutely no place in political discourse. Above all else, we must aggressively fight against any effort to use the force of government to clamp down on political speech. No matter how offensive we may find some political speech, censorship by government is much worse.