A Call For Reason: Civil Discourse after the Tuscon Shooting

When we are young we are interested in learning why things are the way they are.  When we reach a certain age, we tend to lose some of our intellectual curiosity and begin make judgements based on conclusions we have already made (right or wrong).

In the wake of the tragic shooting in Tuscon, I’ve observed a flurry of activity on Twitter and the web blaming Sarah Palin and other right-wing elements for the shooting in Tuscon.  The same day as the shooting Paul Krugman called out Sarah Palin and the Tea Party as likely being a factor in the shooting.  The UK’s Guardian ran a headline expressing concern over “rightwing rhetoric”.   Is there a relationship here or is this just political opportunism?

[Update:  MSNBC’s Chris Matthews is now blaming a conservative talk radio host as being partly responsible for the shooting]

A reasoned analysis which focuses on logic and facts may be able to help cut through the noise and explore this a bit more objectively. In order for Sarah Palin and other “rightwing rhetoric” to have been a contributing factor, it seems to me that the following two things must be true:

1)  It must be demonstrated that there is an ideological linkage between the shooter and Sarah Palin such that it would be reasonably expected that rhetoric from Sarah Palin could have been a motivation for the shooter.

2)  It must be demonstrated that the rhetoric made by Sarah Palin is uniquely excessive when compared to both the national discourse and rhetoric coming from competing ideologies. Lets take a reasoned look at the evidence supporting each of these requirements


Jared Loughner had posted a series of YouTube videos in which he expressed paranoid ramblings on mind control and the government.  Some of his comments also seemed to express a disdain for both religion and the U.S.  Constitution.

He has included “The Communist Manifesto” and “Mein Kampf” in a list of his favorite books.

He has been described by those who knew him as a “left wing” “political radical” and “pothead”.

He had an altar with a human skull replica that would seem to indicate some level of interest in the occult.

Jared had met Rep. Giffords in 2007 and was reportedly unhappy with how he was treated during that meeting.  2007 is well before Sarah Palin or the Tea Party had entered the national stage.

In 2010 Jared was registered as an independent and did not vote.

Would a reasonable person conclude that there is any evidence here of an ideological link between Jared Lougher and Sarah Palin (and is Paul Krugman reasonable)?  Based on this evidence, Jared may have been driven more by his mental state than any particular ideology.  In addition, he apparently did not subscribe to any ideology that might be compatible with Sarah Palin or other “Tea Party” elements.

“Violent” Rhetoric

Now the question is whether the rhetoric of Sarah Palin is inflammatory and dangerous.  This is a subjective question which can not easily be measured in empirical terms, but we can analyze the rhetoric in general and compare it with other discourse from other political actors.  The specific evidence of inflammatory rhetoric by Sarah Palin seems to be the use of cross-hairs on a map to identify “targets” during the 2010 elections as reported by the Huffington Post:

We need to first look at the language and metaphors used here, and then see if similar language and metaphors are employed by other political actors.

Any political action group will routinely “focus” on specific districts which they identify as the biggest obstacle to their agenda.  This is true of any political entity, regardless of ideology.  The metaphor chosen for this “focusing” by Sarah’s PAC was a target.  A target is very common metaphor for a goal and is commonly used in everyday English language (there is even a major retail store named “Target”).  Is the use of the word “target” a dangerous metaphor such that the use of the word must be restricted in order to prevent the intended meaning from being misconstrued by someone of questionable metal stability?

In the end it seems true that Palin’s PAC could have chosen to use language and terminology that would be less likely to be interpreted in a “violent manner”, yet the terms that were used are used on the daily basis in American discourse and are rarely interpreted to be inciting violence.

Now let’s look at the language employed by other political actors. In 2004 the Democratic Leadership Committee published the following map of Republican states that should be “targeted”:

Less than a year ago, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee posted the following map which “targeted” specific members of congress as a “Targeted Republican”

Perhaps the biggest difference between the above map and Sarah Palin’s may be the use of cross-hairs versus an archery-style target, and the DCCC version explicitly using the word “Targeted” next to a specific individual.

Now consider the following incidents of “inflammatory rhetoric”:


The simple truth is that there are left-wing extremists, right-wing extremists and others which are just mentally unstable irregardless of ideology.  TV pundits and talking heads are expressing a concern over a “climate of hate” and in most cases inject Sarah Palin into this discussion while leaving out other political actors.  Again, is there any evidence that Jared was motivated by politics?  Is this “targeting” of Sarah Palin for reasons which can be rationally defended, or is it because journalists may have an axe to grind based on their own political disposition?

Ignore the talking heads and look for the specific evidence for yourself.  Without a critical and honest review of the evidence, it may be possible for media conversations to advance a perception which may not always be consistent with the evidence.  For a case study in this see PowerLine’s series of 19 posts on the allegation of racist remarks made by Tea Party members for which — despite a $100,000 reward — no evidence has surfaced.

The Washington Examiner has noted that after the Fort Hood shootings, we were advised not to jump to conclusions about it being an act of Islamic violence (it was), while many of the same actors are tripping over themselves to blame Sarah Palin hours after the tragedy.

Is there any evidence that Jared was motivated by politics?

Is there any evidence that the rhetoric of Sarah Palin is “dangerous” and excessive when compared to the national dialogue and that of other political actors?

The UK’s Daily Mail has already called out what it calls “America’s elite” on their political opportunism in the wake of tragedy.

Many individuals — including Paul Krugman — revealed much about themselves by choosing to focus blame on Sarah Palin within the first 24 hours of a horrific tragedy in which several were murdered.  Americans will generally find such political opportunism abhorrent and will choose to reject those who acted with such a shameful and disgusting display of political opportunism in a time of tragedy.

Perhaps rather than trying to advance an unsubstantiated view that certain political actors led to this tragedy, perhaps we may want to express our concern for the victims and then focus on more substantive questions such as:

  • Why was Jared not on a “no-buy” list that could have prevented him from purchasing a weapon?
  • Should there be better controls in place to detect and intervene with individuals who may be unstable?
  • What level of protection is appropriate for our elected officials

Those who dislike Sarah Palin may choose to continue to lash out at her at any perceived opportunity, but is this either rational or helpful to the national discourse?

What are my views?  I suspect that If I expressed my opinion of Sarah Palin I would be the target of attacks by both the left and the right.  But this is not a referendum on Sarah Palin but a call for reason and objectivity in the wake of a national tragedy.

As Americans lets decide to look at issues objectively, rationally and to demand evidence rather than instinctively lash out at those whom we may not agree with.

2 Responses to A Call For Reason: Civil Discourse after the Tuscon Shooting

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention A Call For Reason: Civil Discourse after the Tuscon Shooting | Blue Shift -- Topsy.com

  2. B. Riley says:

    Great to see some actual facts, as opposed to wild conjecture spewing forth from the “news” media. I agree with a “No-Buy” list, as long as a person has been certified by the state to be mentally incapable. We’ve got to be extremely careful when we talk about making lists that deem a person ineligible for a civil right.

    In this case, even if there were a “No-Buy” list, this guy would not have been on it, since it is my understanding that he had not been assessed formally by any authority.

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