While perusing the produce aisle of a grocery store last Saturday, I overheard a woman telling her companion that “Tea Partiers are killing Democrats in Arizona.” She had received a text message from a family member, so she knew her statement to be true, even though the shootings had been in the news for the past hour, and other than the usual media speculation, there was no evidence that any political group was involved. Newscasters were seizing every bit of information that came their way, and had already incorrectly announced Congresswoman Giffords’ demise.
Nearly one week later, the speculation is starting to grate. We have been down this road too many times. The nation has been witness to school shootings, violence in the workplace, random murders, and countless other tragic incidents that have one thing in common. They are senseless acts that will never reveal a reason, cause, or justification no matter how much circular discussion we entertain. Crazy is crazy. It is simply not possible to assign a reason to or construct a bulletproof defense against crazy, no matter how hard we may wish otherwise.
Congresswoman Giffords was a representative of government, but this did not appear to be an act based on partisanship, ideology, or anything even remotely connected to political discussion, heated or otherwise. Her life, and those of the other victims, intersected with crazy at the wrong time. Nevertheless, our elected officials are turning this into political theater with long, self-important speeches about reigning in political dialogue, instead of openly dismissing speculation that the incident was precipitated by ill-chosen words.
One senator raised the twin specters of extremism and violent rhetoric:
I have seen firsthand the effects of assassination, and there is no place for this kind of violence in our political discourse. It must be universally condemned. We do not yet know the gunman’s motivations, but I am convinced that we must reject extremism and violent rhetoric.1
A Senate colleague adopted a similar stance, suggesting a connection between words and tragedy:
I am also pleased that members of both parties in Congress are discussing ways to bring more respect, and less hot rhetoric, to our discourse. …
Because elected leaders and community leaders and all of us – in the media too – also must understand that words have power – and sometimes hot or hate-filled rhetoric can be taken to extremes by some who hear them.2
Another senator did not come out and say that Saturday’s tragedy was caused by political discourse, but seemed comfortable entertaining the possibility:
But in the weeks and months ahead, the real issue we need to confront isn’t just what role divisive political rhetoric may have played on Saturday – but it’s the violence divisive, overly simplistic dialogue does to our democracy every day.3
A member of the House suggested that altering the tone of our rhetoric could even prevent violence:
But we have lost sight of the values, which have made our country great when we lower ourselves to vitriolic rhetoric. . . .
I hope that the pain of this moment opens our hearts to change our own actions and prevent further horror.4
We cannot defend against crazy, but should expect to not be further assailed by remarks that use this tragedy as an excuse to engage in innuendo and speculation. Political invective can turn angry and heated, but angry rhetoric did not lead to the Arizona tragedy. Crazy caused the Arizona tragedy, and trying to wring political points from crazy is senseless and irresponsible.