A Farewell to Arms: End Violent Political Rhetoric Now

Update: Joe Scarborough and Pat Buchanan agree with the thesis of this post, that it’s time for politicos like Palin and Bachmann to apologize for their complicity in creating a hateful climate.

After Saturday’s attempted assassination of a Democratic congresswoman — and the tragic loss of six other lives — we learned, fairly quickly, that Sarah Palin had “targeted” the shooter’s intended victim, Gabriel Gifford, by putting a crosshair over her district in a midterm mailer. The retrospectively tacky decision sent Republicans and conservatives into a frenzy of spin control, with surrogates emphasizing that the Republican use of gun-related words is so frequent as to be innocuous; that madness knows no ideology; and that guns aren’t dangerous, even though one was just used to kill six people.

All of the above is surely true. Well, at least the first two points are. And neither Sarah Palin nor Glenn Beck nor the tea party, nor anyone in particular save the shooter, can be blamed directly or indirectly for this hateful act. But the fact remains that it’s so easy to reflexively blame political violence on the right because, regardless of any causation analysis of this incident, we all know that influential members of the party opposite have, over the past two years, worked hard to build a climate of extremism and violence, and that, if someone finally took it all to heart, well, we wouldn’t be too surprised.

Let’s recap the past two years. Michele Bachmann  regularly implied a need for armed revolt, to refresh the tree of liberty with the “blood of patriots.” Sharron Angle touted the need for “Second Amendment remedies” to Obama administration policies. Rick Perry regularly threatened to secede (although with characteristic grace, Fox News noted that he “probably won’t”). A less recognizable pundit hoped that liberals “feel threatened” by him; another warned that “if ballots don’t work, bullets will”; and still another threatened, on behalf of his military listeners, an armed coup. Sometimes it’s even more explicit. In 2009, conservatives wore assault rifles to an anti-Obama rally. Hell, Gifford’s opponent in this last race led his supporters in firing their assault rifles into the air, as a “symbolic” attack on her candidacy. And always, and at every turn, Glenn Beck equated the President, or liberal Democrats, with tyrants, evoked images of civil war, implied the need for their “removal,” and let you come to your own conclusion about what that means. Analysis that was all intoned with a terrifying sense of urgency.

In a world where a congresswoman, a federal judge, and a nine year old can wake up one morning, and only one of them survive the day, this is unacceptable, and now is a perfect time to say so. Liberal pundits are wrong to blame the right for this murder. But for the life of me, I can’t imagine why conservative pundits won’t stand against their visible, violent, and mainstreamed fringe.



  1. They won’t do it for the same reason demagogues are never stood down – fringe elements serve a useful (if dastardly) purpose in politics, namely ensuring that mainstream politicians don’t HAVE to say the politically incorrect thing they think their constituents want to hear.

    And your analysis is off by about a decade – remember a certain Vice President calling Americans who disagreed with the Iraq war “traitors?”

  2. I think there is little doubt that the sort of violent rhetoric that seems to be common in certain circles is not exactly healthy for a society, especially when it’s as relative mainstream as it currently is.

    More than anything, though, (and surprisingly, I haven’t really seen anyone touch on this yet) this particular incident seems most of all like a failure of a social and psychiatric system that appears to have been more or less absent. It appears that the perpetrator was known in his college as a disturbed and potentially dangerous person, even to the point where the police was involved, yet no one seems to have asked the social services to intervene.

    Come to think of it, do you even have social services in the US? What happens to a person who obviously needs psychiatric treatment? Do you need insurance for that, too? And can they be compulsorily committed to a hospital if necessary?

    1. Come to think of it, do you even have social services in the US? What happens to a person who obviously needs psychiatric treatment? Do you need insurance for that, too? And can they be compulsorily committed to a hospital if necessary?

      Answering your questions in reverse order: yes, you can be involuntarily committed, but you can challenge it in court (which is only fair considering involuntary commitment, even if you’re successfully treated and released, has the same effects as a felony conviction on your future employability and the exercise of various civil rights). For the most part, you need insurance or the ability to pay out-of-pocket for psychiatric treatment, although there are a variety of exceptions and curlicues to that (the obvious one being that Medicaid provides mental health coverage). Here where I live, for instance, the Norfolk Community Services Board (which is part of the Commonwealth’s mental health services department) provides outpatient mental health care on an income-based sliding-scale of fees. What happens to a person who obviously needs psychiatric treatment varies based on a lot of factors, the most important of which is of course how obvious it is to them that they need the treatment, since (as far as I know) involuntary commitment’s the only way to compel psychiatric treatment anywhere in the U.S. And yes, we have social services in the U.S., although I think there’s a trend of late to give them a different name, like Human Services, and I think their focus is primarily on children (the stereotypical job of Social Services is to take abused children from their families and put them in foster care).

      1. I see. Well, in any case I’d suggest that the lesson to be learned from this case does not have anything to do with political rhetorics, but rather with a need for a better and more comprehensive psychiatric system. If the different authorities work together and act proactively, it’s quite possible to detect these cases early and prevent them from developing in this way.

        1. I agree wholeheartedly Lanfranc. This was a completely random tragedy and trying to spin it off into an ancillary discussion about the violence of the Right is irresponsible. It’s an insult to the people who died in AZ.

  3. “… we all know that influential members of the party opposite have, over the past two years, worked hard to build a climate of extremism and violence,”

    I think in light of recent discussions it would be helpful for you to define ‘influential’. I assumed Paul Ryan was ‘influential’ but per your own words, the only way someone can be considered influential is if they affect legislation.


    Do Michele Bachmann, Sharron Angle, Rick Perry and Glenn Beck meet that criteria?

    For someone who says the Right shouldn’t be blamed for this tragedy, you seem to be making your best case that yeah, really they should.

  4. That’s a clever way to dodge a serious issue.

  5. It’s not a dodge at all Ames. When you make statements like, “Republicans have no ideas,” and I respond with any number of examples of Republicans who in fact DO have ideas, you always brush them aside as obscure (not enough media coverage) or inconsequential (they don’t impact actual legislation).

    When you toss around the term ‘influential’ you seem to set the bar either really high or really low to suit your purposes. Now you are citing a few conservatives and claiming they are, in fact, influential. This is confusing when just the other day you seemed to believe only the uppermost echelon of Republican legislators fit that discription. So maybe you should define what that means. In what way are they influential for the purposes of this discussion?

  6. Isn’t this perfectly reconcilable? All of the Republicans I noted above are influential. But they have no policy ideas. Perfect.

    1. And Paul Ryan has policy ideas but he’s NOT influential? Correct? So it IS back to media attention as the criteria…but I thought you squashed that notion last week?

      And you still haven’t explained ‘influential’ in this context. I assume you mean ‘able to affect people’s actions’. If that is corect, is it your contention that Rick Perry really could incite a secession if he so desired?

      1. Paul Ryan’s policy ideas are to go back to Bush.

        Rick Perry is in fact the Governor of Texas. One assumes the Governor could in fact lead his state into seccession.

  7. I’ve always thought the problem with violent mainstream right-wing rhetoric was just that asides from a few fringe fucktards like ALF there’s no violent left-wing rhetoric at all to counterbalance it and hasn’t been for decades.

    1. Could be that the left-wing knows they don’t have the firepower?

    2. I’ve been seeing this post float around the “tumblr” lately which brings up that point Steve.


      1. Yeah, but she draws the wrong conclusion. The proper solution is for the left to ramp its rhetoric up, not for the right to tone its rhetoric down. This is especially the case with ideas that can only be effectively expressed with violent rhetoric – some of which are really good, valuable ideas that should spread and influence people’s actions or public policy.

        And let’s not pretend violence is some intrinsically bad thing, because it isn’t. Violence is a tool, and depending on the circumstances of its use it can be a very socially beneficial tool. Whether a particular act of violence depends on a gamut of variables: who does it, who it’s done to, why it was done, how it’s done, etc. Contrary to that vacuous saying, violence can solve lots of problems, and sometimes violence makes the world a better place. Too much of the right may think violence solves too many problems that it doesn’t, but most of the left has bought into a lie that’s left it wrongly thinking violence won’t solve problems that it would and unwilling to use it anyway.

        1. Violence cannot be used to express ideas. As Hannah Arendt said, it is mute, it is incapable of forging any kind of lasting social bonds or agreements, only of destroying them. It has no place at all in democratic politics.

          1. Opposition to specific “social bonds or agreements” isn’t an idea?

            1. To an extent, but an infertile one if you don’t have something to put in their place. And that something cannot be established with violence – that requires power derived from authority, which can only operate in the absence of violence.

          2. I initially thought Steve’s ideas were crazy, but after a little thought I realised that he does have a point. I wouldn’t go as far as acts of physical violence, but the left are too easy to surrender the aggressive attack to the right. When insulted or threatened the left tend to cry like children rather than stand their ground.

            Take Limbaugh and Coulter. They are insulting and threatening of their opponents, but one is a fat blowhard who can barely breath when he talks and the other is a skinny waif. If they were to walk up to you in a bar and say those things you would tip your beer on them and think nothing of it. But when they make one of their provocative statements they know they can do it with immunity as they are unlikely to suffer any consequences beyond the tutting and, more common, whining of their political opponents, which just raises their profile in the end. If they are going to talk trash, talk trash back to them. There is no point trying to have a reasonable discussion with someone who is just insulting you. Insult them back and move on to someone else willing to have an actual discussion.

            When all those tea-party nuts started showing up with automatic rifles to Obama’s speeches I thought even at the time “why doesn’t a few Obama supports do the same”? Their is nothing more patriotic than wanting to defend your president, especially when he has people that are so clearly oppose him walking around with guns.

            Now really is not the time to add fuel to the fire with more angry rhetoric, but I can’t help but feel if the left were less willing to roll over for the last 16 year, the right would not have become so outwardly aggressive.

            1. When all those tea-party nuts started showing up with automatic rifles to Obama’s speeches I thought even at the time “why doesn’t a few Obama supports do the same”?

              Well, there’s the reason you and I were already implying.

              Then there’s that the majority of Obama’s supporters probably don’t have seven or eight thousand dollars sitting around that they could drop on an automatic rifle – which is what a cheap one costs. Majority of Obama opponents probably can’t afford an automatic rifle either. Much cheaper to go semi-automatic.

  8. […] defy easy labeling as another mouth of the hydra-headed, but uniformly extreme, Republican Party (e.g.). But that respect has its […]

  9. […] and the media’s relative silence, compared to their heightened interest in recent overwrought Republican zealotry. Why the double standard, he […]

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