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More on vitriol and violence [Updated]

Flowers at the Capitol It was inevitable, I guess, that Tuesday's editorial on this country's overheated political rhetoric would be read by some as a purely partisan screed -- that is, as part of the attempt to blame the GOP for poisoning the well of political discourse. And it didn't help matters that the editorial mentioned Republican Sarah Palin putting online cross hairs on Rep. Gabrielle Giffords for her vote in favor of the healthcare reform bill, but not comments by the likes of the lefty Daily Kos blog about "targeting" the Arizona Democrat for voting against them on other issues.

Here's how a reader identified as Yogi_Bears_Tie put it:

The LA Times Editorial board does not have serious minded thinkers, but rather absolute partisan hacks.  You start by condemning the Left for using the attack to score political points, and then attack only Sarah Palin.  No mention what so ever about the extremely ugly rants against George W. Bush.  Does “Bush Lied; Thousands Died” ring a bell?  Maybe it just rings true to your partisan ears.

So the editorial appears to have been swept up in the backlash against the backlash -- the condemnation of the attempt by some lefties to cast the attempted assassination of Giffords as an outgrowth of talk radio, the Tea Party movement or angry political speech in general. We on the board can only blame ourselves for not speaking more clearly.

Our editorial Sunday on the shootings in Tucson -- "Shooting from the lip in reaction to Gabrielle Giffords tragedy" -- made the same point that many of the commenters were making Tuesday. Here's the final paragraph:

Free speech is one of this page's most fundamental values; we wouldn't suggest for a minute that it should be curtailed for fear of its consequences. But we agree with [former President] Clinton that people should assume responsibility for what they say, and we are both ashamed and embarrassed at the unreasoned and intemperate commentary we read Saturday.

The idea behind Tuesday's editorial was to say that even if there were no shooting in Tucson, we should still reflect on what's happened to discussions of policy in this country. The second person to comment on the editorial responded by calling Rep. Robert Brady (D-Pa.) a "fascist" because of a bill he reportedly planned to introduce: a measure that would apply the same prohibitions on threatening speech to federal officials and members of Congress as are applied to the president. Brady's bill is a bad idea (in part because the prohibitions on speech about the president are, themselves, problematic), but it doesn't make him a fascist -- not by any stretch of the imagination. And in the wake of the shooting of one of his colleagues, it's an understandable overreaction by someone with a new reason to fear public service.

I know, "sticks and stones." And granted, calling someone a fascist is tame in comparison to the accusations leveled against elected officials in the 19th century. But as someone who loves the art of policymaking, I'm disturbed by how the country's continuous election cycle has affected the ability of legislators to seek the best approaches to governing. Ideas get reduced to caricatures. Compromises become violations of principle. And the motives of the folks on the other side are invariably corrupt.

Conservative columnist Jonah Goldberg disagrees with me on this; his latest piece for us joins in the chorus of those defending the tone of today's politics. Vigorous debate is a good thing, indeed. But when was the last time a debate in Congress involved a contest of ideas aimed at joining the best elements of competing viewpoints? The big arguments of the last Congress weren't about legislating so much as they were about claiming the semantic high ground for the next election. Think "government takeover" and "ending Social Security as we know it."

That's something we all should be worried about. The tragedy in Tucson, where victims were chosen regardless of political affiliation or beliefs, is broadly shared. It's a moment to reflect on how corrosive politics have become, how disparaging we are of the people with whom we disagree. It should bring us together, even if it doesn't narrow the gaps in our view of how government should work. Instead, it appears that the shootings have provided just another opportunity for politics as usual.

Update, Wednesday, 6:01 p.m.: In his speech in Tuscon, President Obama made a similar point much better than I did. Here's a long excerpt:

If this tragedy prompts reflection and debate, as it should, let’s make sure it’s worthy of those we have lost. Let’s make sure it’s not on the usual plane of politics and point scoring and pettiness that drifts away with the next news cycle.

The loss of these wonderful people should make every one of us strive to be better in our private lives – to be better friends and neighbors, co-workers and parents. And if, as has been discussed in recent days, their deaths help usher in more civility in our public discourse, let’s remember that it is not because a simple lack of civility caused this tragedy -- it did not -- but rather because only a more civil and honest public discourse can help us face up to our challenges as a nation, in a way that would make them proud. We should be civil because we want to live up to the example of public servants like John Roll and Gabby Giffords, who knew first and foremost that we are all Americans, and that we can question each other’s ideas without questioning each other’s love of country, and that our task, working together, is to constantly widen the circle of our concern so that we bequeath the American dream to future generations.

They believed and I believe that we can be better. Those who died here, those who saved lives here – they help me believe. We may not be able to stop all evil in the world, but I know that how we treat one another, that's entirely up to us. And I believe that for all our imperfections, we are full of decency and goodness, and that the forces that divide us are not as strong as those that unite us.


Vitriol and violence

The exploitive rhetoric of tragedy

Shooting from the lip in reaction to Gabrielle Giffords tragedy

-- Jon Healey

Photo credit: Associated Press / Charles Dharapak



Comments () | Archives (8)

The comments to this entry are closed.

Teresa Trujillo

The LAT and much of the traditional media has lost the objectivity that is necessary to evaluate today's news. "Partisan hacks" on both sides have divided the debate and heated the rhetoric.

Before there were any FACTS about the Tucson madman's rampage, the press decided that the shooting was politically motivated. Giffords' district had been "targeted" by Republicans--so that must have led to the shooting, right? WRONG.

This is just another disturbed individual shooting a celebrity. Rebecca Shaeffer, Teresa Saldana, John Lennon, and other celebrities have been the obsession of madmen. Congresswoman Giffords is a celebrity in the Tucson area.

The newspaper should stick to reporting the news--the facts of the shooting. Too many reporters and opinion writers tried to make sense of a senseless act. Too many reporters and opinion writers got it WRONG!

Jon Healey

@Theresa -- Umm, thanks for the analysis of the shooting, but this post wasn't about that. It was about how policymaking is influenced by the tenor of political discourse. Want to weigh in on that?


We don't know that politicians weren't behind the shooting; it's still under investigation. Ms. Gifford's switching allegiance and the aggressive political language aimed at her are enough to justify discussion of and investigation into the possibility that other people, including politicians were involved. If, say, a home invasion goes down, does media automatically deny that anyone other than the obvious offender had a part in the robbery? No. So why favor people in high-visibility positions?
I do agree with your third paragraph."Vigorous debates" are intellectually and emotionally stimulating and can be healthy, but an intelligent controversial debate has nothing to do with using violent imagery in a verbal attack.
Also, the rhetoric in question can and does incite unstable people to act out violently.

Don Steele

No it isn't politics as usual as the escalating costs of mounting political campaigns has offered too much opportunity to large campaign contributors and raised corruption to new levels.
Americans understand baseball and wouldn't consider one with a leg brace as a pinch base runner yet we foolishly continue to elect public officials knowing that they'll take office indebted to large campaign contributors whose goals may be detrimental to the general economy.

Mitchell Young

FWIW I found the original editorial an exemplar of sweet reason, especially compared to the editorials in another 'Times'.

And to be honest, I was more than relieved when the facts started rolling in about Loughner, that he was not connected to any immigration enforcement or restrictionist group (surely we would have heard by now), or any other sort of right wing group. That is actually kind of said, when you think about it, after all the people are just as dead, just as injured, with the bullets coming from a young man with a shattered instead of some right wing radical.

The problem is that much of the MSM and certainly the more vehement Left have simple ignored facts, sticking to their narrative of 'vitriol' and 'hate' like early modern alchemists stuck to phlogiston and aether. Your own 'news' side ran an egregious article in which two men (Mark Potok, Chip Berlet) who make their living discovering right wing 'hate' -- real or imagined -- pretended to find some sort influence of the right in Loughner's single youtube 'slide' about gold and silver backed currency. You'd be hard put to find a Paulite or any other far right group calling for a return to bimetalism, there is more textual 'evidence' that Loughner was channelling William Jennings Bryant's 'Cross of Gold' speech. Which is to say, just slightly more than zero. Being very charitable, Potok and Berlet are like the proverbial man with a hammer; everything seems like a nail.

Now, let's look at the other side of the ledger. Its pretty hard to make any sense of Loughner's writings, his primary influence seems to have been a logic textbook. Content wise, his concern with grammar and control is a hallmark of deconstructionism, a movement/philosophy usually associated with the left. If we leave Loughner's shattered mind into reality, we find friends saying he was non-political, never listened to talk radio, did a lot of drugs (pot, salvia), that he first became obsessed with Giffords way back in 2007, long before anyone outside of Alaska had heard of Sarah Palin or the Tea Party ever existed. All this evidence and more, and more, and more has all piled up, and yet 'news' stories and columns continue to blame 'vitriol'.

It makes one long for the old days when things like this would cause an actual discussion of policy. John Lennon gets gunned down and a debate over gun control ensues. We could be having that debate here, or a debate over whether our laws on mental institutionalization have become to liberal, or the role of community colleges as sort of post-high school holding institutions for a generation unable to find good jobs. I can even tie it into my favorite issue, immigration, noting that Loughner was like many American-born young men that have little in the way of decent paying semiskilled, physical jobs to go to (say in construction) in large part because of mass immigration. The evidence seems to be that his lack of being able to find a suitable job played a part in worsening his illness.

The Left has not chosen to address these issues. Rather it has chosen to attack speech itself. This trend started long before these events -- with Mark Potok's SPLC being one of the leaders in this tactic. Rather than, say, debate Lou Dobbs on the facts of illegal immigration, folks like the SPLC and Latino groups simply labelled such speech 'hate', and campaigned to have it silenced.

This is similar to what is happening now with the concerted attack on Palin. She is hardly the first one to use martial metaphors in politics. Think 'warchest' , districts have been 'targeted' since modern elections have been held, indeed the very word 'campaign' originally applied to referred to an army's actions in wartime. But the left seeks to isolate Palin as hateful and vitriolic; doing so eliminates the need to engage her ideas (or those of any pol labelled 'hater') on a factual and or logical basis.


And it didn't help matters that the editorial mentioned Republican Sarah Palin putting online cross hairs on Rep. Gabrielle Giffords for her vote in favor of the

Your right it didn't help that you said this.What's the matter LATs, you afraid that Palin will sue you for libel, slander, and defamation? I hope she does. What yellow journalism...what a slanderous dog paper this is.
You even admit you said Palin put cross hairs on Giffords...it was a MAP damnit. The same type of map that the DNC uses in elections. Then you, yes, you incited the slathering lunatics that suffer from PDS, to further slander her, like a witch hunt. You, LATs, have caused her great harm, her reputation, her chases for office, and after your slanderous deviant smear, the death threats to Palin are unprecedented.And now you want to save face and back track...won't work. You are a scum rag ,.
LATs, you have blood on your hands.


I skipped the Obama speech. His words are hollow to me. Obama should have told his MSM buddies to shut up about Palin.
If the editorial staff cared one bit about integrity, you would immediately take down all the comments on the hate Palin fest comment boards. Enough is enough. Haven't you contributed enough to slander, defame, and libel this poor woman.Who hasn't done anything WRONG. Your staff is contributing to the ugly discourse in this country by allowing this to happen. Palin is the second most admired woman in America, again this year. Yet you allow her to be excoriated day by day, due to your own malice to slime her.
Shame on the LATs, a yellow dog rag paper.


I know, "sticks and stones." And granted, calling someone a fascist is tame in comparison to the accusations leveled against elected officials in the 19th century

Tame in comparision to what was said the eight years of Bush's presidency, don't you mean?
And Brady was acting like a facist, or was he so stupid he fell for the liberal meme... SHUT DOWN DISSENTING VOICES FROM THE RIGHT.
You left out Clyburn's rants about bringing back the Unfairness Doctrine.



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