A wakeup call or sad milestone?


THE LANGUAGE of political discourse matters. It is a measure of the acuteness of divisions in society, a mirror to the nature of its politics and it helps shape the climate in which debate occurs. It sets the confines of a discussion and, implicitly, whether intended or not, the limits of the acceptable.

Ultimately, in the minds of the alienated and disturbed, the dangerous hyperbole and inflammatory rhetoric of populist demagogues may give legitimacy to acts like the outrageous attack on Saturday in Tucson on Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. The rhetoric that has taken hold in US politics, local Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik has rightly observed, “may be free speech, but it’s not without consequences”.

The first attempt on the life of a sitting member of Congress since the 1978 killing of Leo Ryan (while investigating the Peoples Temple cult compound in Jonestown, Guyana) did not come out of a clear blue sky but occurred in a period in which the political passions that have divided the US have been ratcheted up and – with them – the seemingly acceptable metaphors of war, a coming Armageddon and armed revolution.

Twenty-two-year-old Jared Loughner, who is being held for the killings, is clearly a deeply disturbed man who appears at this stage not to have been part of a conspiracy. But the preoccupations that troubled him, evidenced by confused Facebook ramblings and videos and bewildered former classmates, appear to have been associated with feelings about authority that echo and fed off the hysteria generated on the country’s far right.

Among the more egregious but not untypical rhetoric is Sarah Palin’s. She belatedly removed from her website yesterday images of gun sights on a map of “targeted” Democrats, including Giffords. She told supporters on Twitter after the US healthcare bill’s passage “Don’t Retreat, Instead - RELOAD”. Nevada Tea Party candidate in the recent Senate campaign Sharron Angle hinted at “second-amendment remedies”, a reference to the US constitution’s protection of gun ownership.

Do they mean such hyperbole to be taken literally? No. But there is no doubt it feeds oxygen to extremists in an environment where automatic weapons are bewilderingly available. It would be impossible even to conceive of an Irish candidate’s campaign urging constituents to come around and “shoot a fully automatic M16 with Jesse Kelly”. That was what was on offer from the Republican, a 29-year-old ex-Marine sergeant, who was narrowly defeated in November by Giffords herself.

It is a climate in which even moderates find it increasingly difficult to be heard over the cacophony of abuse from politically activist shock-jocks and their talk of tyranny. Giffords, a Blue Dog centrist Democrat, found her office attacked after supporting the healthcare bill and has faced bilious threats at home in Arizona for her opposition to the state’s new anti-immigrant law.

The question is whether Saturday’s shootings turn out to be a wakeup call to America and mark the beginning of the end of this culture, or simply a sad milestone on the continuing descent into poisonous intolerance.