Despite the temptation to join the grief-stricken chorus of blame, I do not believe that flame-fanners and spleen-suppliers like Sarah Palin, et al., are responsible for the tragic events in Tucson. Rather, the incendiary rhetorical devices they’ve used ? from gun sights over congressional districts to the invocation of “Second Amendment remedies” as viable tactics for change ? make these demagogues irresponsible about the consequences of their allusions. Words do have power, and thus should be used cautiously, but the notion of linking those words with the actions of others and ascribing blame for their remote consequences is a dangerous slippery slope that could have a chilling effect on all of our First Amendment rights.
Don’t get me wrong, speech has its limits. The direct incitement to violence, for instance, has long been understood as beyond the purview of freedom of speech. But the nexus between speech and action is key to invoking this limit, requiring both spatial and temporal investigations to determine culpability. A speech given to a rabid audience telling people to “get out there and start shooting” is quite likely over the line, but a more general statement telling listeners to “get out there and fight” for something is almost certainly not. Statements made through public channels are even more remote, and although they might include rhetoric intended to instigate political activity, the closeness of the fit between word and deed is a tenuous proposition at best.
This is most definitely not to absolve Palin, Angle, Bachmann, Beck, Coulter, Limbaugh and their ilk for their combustible calls to confrontational action. Undoubtedly, both at the national level and in Arizona in particular, there has been an overall climate of fear and rage fomented that serves as the powder-keg backdrop to horrific events like the Tucson massacre. Yet we ought not entirely abandon the notion of personal responsibility in the process, unless we are willing to do the truly difficult work of looking in the societal mirror and ascribing blame to a culture of violence in which we all participate. As asinine as their rhetoric may be, stopping at the Palins of the world when seeking responsible parties for tragic acts doesn’t reflect the deeper context in which we are all operating as consumers, taxpayers, and voters.
Yes, Palin’s gun sights are provocative and misguided. But every corner store and suburban living room is stocked with mass media, movies, and video games that are similarly violence-prone in their imagery. Maximally liberal gun laws such as those in Arizona (an interesting irony, given the state’s avid conservatism) don’t help matters, nor does the evisceration of public infrastructure for education and health care that might serve to provide a safety net for troubled young loners with the potential to erupt. Simply put, Sarah Palin didn’t create Jared Lee Loughner, any more so than all of us did. Still, she knew or should have known that people like him were out there ? and even if it turns out that he wasn’t a fan of her political positions whatsoever, he grew up in a culture dominated by voices like hers fanning the reactionary flames of irresponsible discontent.
Are there things to be metaphorically “up in arms” about in our society? Of course, and the list is long. But to pretend that Palin isn’t part of the ruling elite (and thus ostensibly “part of the problem”) as opposed to her self-construction as an anti-elite crusader, is to dangerously “misunderestimate” (to quote the quintessential example) the lockstep power of the media in constructing our shared reality. Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik had it right when he cited the combination of a pervasive culture of vitriolic software with readily-available Second Amendment hardware as part of the locus of blame for what happened in Tucson (and what too often happens to smaller or larger degrees in cities across America). Yet in the process of identifying the problem, we should take care not to create a new narrative that in turn demonizes others and thus continues the cycle of escalating antipathy.
We can break this cycle by refuting the twisted logic of the sycophants agitating for insurrection without any real regard for positive transformation, and likewise by repudiating those in our midst who resort to divisiveness and hatred in their words and deeds. This is not censorship, mind you ? but refutation and repudiation, consistent with the best of the First Amendment tradition suggesting that the primary antidote to harmful speech is more speech to counter it. Indeed, the oft-repeated malapropism of “refudiate” seems to cover it quite well. Now if Sarah Palin would just take her own advice and disavow all future incitement to even implied violence, we might actually find ourselves on a “bridge to somewhere” for a refreshing political change of pace.
RANDALL AMSTER, J.D., Ph.D., teaches Peace Studies at Prescott College and serves as the Executive Director of the Peace & Justice Studies Association. His most recent books are the co-edited volume Building Cultures of Peace: Transdisciplinary Voices of Hope and Action (Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2009) and Lost in Space: the Criminalization, Urbanization and Globalization of Homelessness.