Back in November, I wrote a short piece entitled “How did we get here?” in which I discussed the increasingly hostile and vitriolic nature of the rhetoric in today’s political environment. I observed that the battle cries from both extremes of the political divide were drowning out the civil political dialogue, and that the blogosphere and talk radio had become modern pulpits through which new age rabble-rowsing prophets of doom preach to their respective choirs. My fears were that these increasingly polarized extremes were bringing out the worst in average Americans. Despite these concerns, I could not have imagined that the insane levels of acrimony expressed in our political dialogue would eventually produce the levels of violence and tragedy recently witnessed in Tucson, Arizona.
Of course, Jared Lee Loughner’s motives for his attempted assasination of congresswoman Gifford remain unclear. It seems quite clear that the young man’s mental instability was certainly a factor, and one ought to be careful in jumping to premature conclusions regarding the role that the increasingly tribalistic political environment played in pushing him over the edge and into a violent shooting spree. Yet, we can be sure that the ratchetted up rhetoric and demonizing of opponents, to the extent that all who disagree with “us” are unamerican and intent on destroying “our” country, certainly didn’t help. With extremists on either side all but declaring war on their “freedom hating, un-American enemies”, it wouldn’t be too much of a surprise if some unstable mind decided it was not only time to “reload”, but indeed time to “water the liberty tree with blood”.
As such, though it remains unclear whether Loughner had any such grand ideas in mind when he decided to open fire, there is a clear need for civility to return to our public dialogue. We can only hope this incident will perhaps put some pressure on those who profit from and benefit politically by increasing polarization and suspicion of opponents to tone things down a bit. I am however not not too confident this incident alone will have much influence if the flame throwers continue to benefit from spreading hatred and suspicion. It will require us, the consumers of such rhetoric, to stop rewarding the flame throwers. It will require us to become more aware of these tactics and to see through those efforts and stop rewarding them with our votes and our business. Unfortunately, I’m not convinced we’re there yet.
It remains to be seen what direction our political discourse will now take in the aftermath of the tragedy in Tucson.It will be all the more of a tragedy if it takes more of such incidents before we eventually learn the hard way that the path we are on is not sustainable and certainly not conducive to enhancing our beloved democracy.