by Bob Maley, Editor in Chief
On January 8 in Casas Adobes, Arizona (near Tucson), thirteen people were shot, six of which were killed, in an assassination attempt on the life of U.S. Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ). Among those killed were nine year old Christina-Taylor Green and U.S. District Court Judge John Roll. Giffords survived the attack and is currently recovering from a point-blank gunshot wound to the head.
When news of the shooting broke, many political pundits immediately rushed to assume that alleged gunman Jared Lee Loughner, a resident of Giffords’ constituency, acted upon political motivations. Admittedly, this was not a difficult assumption to make.
Last March, an image of crosshairs on Giffords’ district (as well as the districts of nineteen other Democratic members of Congress) appeared on a map of the United States posted on the Facebook page of former Alaska Governor and Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin. The map was accompanied by a statement on the governor’s Twitter account which read “Commonsense Conservatives & Lovers of America: ‘Don’t Retreat, Instead – RELOAD!’ Pls see my Facebook page.” Giffords, a “Blue Dog” moderate Democrat, has recently come under heavy criticism from the political right for her vote in favor of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.
However, investigations have revealed that Loughner subscribed to a philosophy of paranoid nihilism that was essentially non-identifiable in the terms of mainstream American politics. Thus, directly attributing his actions to Palin or any other public figure is objectively false. Nonetheless, tragedies such as the Tucson shooting present a rare opportunity to consider the nature and impact of our words, our actions, and our values.
No good can possibly come from the political dynamic that has existed in our country in the past several years. Indeed, politics in this country has devolved from a civil and rational discussion of ideas into a veritable culture war, where discussion has turned to fighting and reason has turned to hysteria.
Freedom of speech is a universal human right, and no plausible argument can be made in favor of restricting political speech, no matter how volatile. However, for freedom of speech to be a positive good in society it must be exercised with responsibility. It follows that continued abuses of this responsibility will lead to more negative consequences. If the tone of our political discussions does not change, continued instances such as the Tucson shooting will gradually lead people to become more inclined to sacrifice our right to free speech as it becomes less and less desirable.
Moving forward, it is my hope that public figures will be less inclined to characterize political disagreements as battles between good and evil or right and wrong. Those types of characterizations make politics personal and therefore emotional. Emotion reigns at the expense of reason, and reason is a virtue that is absolutely essential to any free society. It is thus important to remember that words often, if not always, have consequences. When they are used to divide and incite people, they hinder the flourishing of progress, of civility, and most importantly, of reason.