Monday, January 10, 2011

"When Words Are Used As Weapons, And Weapons Are Used In Place Of Words"

What an awful mess we have made of the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave. Think a good thought for the families of Christina Green - 9, Dorothy Morris - 76, Judge John Roll - 63, Phyllis Schneck - 79, Dorwin Stoddard - 76, and Gabriel Zimmerman - 30. They were all done too soon. And, do not forget the families of the 14 wounded victims, either. A firestorm has broken out on right-wing talk radio with blanket denials of the connection between hate speech and the Tucson massacre. Sorry, but that dog won't hunt. Eags calls the crazies out in today's NY Fishwrap Op-Ed column. And, in a variant on "If the shoe fits..." the Dumbos, Teabaggers, and their gun-nut fellow-travelers virtually have blood on their hands. If this is a (fair & balanced) judgment, so be it.

[x NY Fishwrap]
Tombstone Politics
By Timothy Egan

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If it turns out that a poisonous variant of free speech is partially to blame for the shootings in Tucson, we will most certainly be struck by the fact that Gabrielle Giffords was seen last week in Congress, reading part of the Constitution that allows an American citizen to say just about anything.

But as Representative Giffords herself also pointed out, in March when she was a target because of her vote on health care reform, free speech does have a cost.

“We’re on Sarah Palin’s targeted list,” said Giffords. “Crosshairs of a gunsight over our district. When people do that, they’ve got to realize there’s consequences.”

Giffords had already felt a blunt edge of opponents’ rage — a window in her Tucson office was shattered after she voted to expand health care for other Americans.

The court filings late Sunday offered few clues on why a deranged man would open fire on a public servant meeting the public, killing six, gravely wounding Ms. Giffords. Was it because she was a Jew? A woman? A Democrat? A member of Congress? An advocate of health care? A face of government in a state where anti-government sentiment is the early bird special? All we know is that the 22-year-old man charged with the shootings, Jared Lee Loughner, wrote notes about a planned “assassination.”

So, from there, deductions must begin. One discussion goes to the first two amendments of the Constitution — a clause that guarantees even crazy people the right to say horrible things, and another one that seems to give those same crazy people the right to own a lethal weapon.

Neither amendment, of course, killed a 9-year-old girl or put a bullet through the head of that bright soul, Gabrielle Giffords. But both amendments, when abused, can have lethal consequences, as the congresswoman herself said so hauntingly in March. The sheriff of Pima County, Clarence Dupnik, who is already under Tea Party attack for speaking his mind, had it mostly right when he said Arizona had become “the Tombstone of the United States.”

Tombstone, the town, is in Giffords’s southern Arizona district, an Old West burg where shootouts are staged, bodies fall into the street, and then everybody applauds and laughs it off. Tombstone politics is the place we’ve been living in for some time now, and our guns are loaded.

In my home state Washington, federal officials recently put away a 64-year-old man who threatened, in the most vile language, to kill Senator Patty Murray because she voted for health care reform. Imagine: kill her because she wanted to give fellow Americans a chance to get well. Why would a public policy change prompt a murder threat?

Prosecutors here in Washington State told me that the man convicted of making the threats was using language that, in some cases, came word-for-word from Glenn Beck, the Fox demagogue. Every afternoon Charles A. Wilson would sit in his living room and stuff his head with Beck, a man who spouts scary nonsense to millions. Of course, Beck didn’t make the threats or urge his followers to do so.

But it was Beck who said “the war is just beginning,” after the health care bill was passed. And it was Beck who re-introduced the paranoid and racist rants of a 1950s-era John Birch Society supporter, W. Cleon Skousen, who said a one-world government cabal was plotting a takeover.

It’s also worth one more mention of Sharron Angle, the Republican who was nearly elected Senator from Nevada. She agreed with a talk-radio host who suggested that “domestic enemies” — a code for treasonous agents, deserving of death — were working within the walls of Congress. And it was Angle who speculated on whether people frustrated with politicians would turn to “Second Amendment remedies,” which is not even code for assassination. It can only mean one thing.

The federal judge who was murdered on Saturday morning, John M. Roll, received numerous death threats to him and his family after an Arizona talk-radio station went after him because he dared to let a civil rights lawsuit against the state’s harsh immigration law proceed. He needed marshal protection from these rabid radio-inspired opponents of a free and functioning judiciary.

The good news is that already, in just a few days time, this kind of talk from Beck, Palin and Angle is now being seen for what it really is — something not to be touched by fair citizens or ambitious politicians. And the long-overdue revulsion is because such poisons — death threats in place of reasoned argument, fetishizing of guns, glib talk of “taking someone out” — were used so carelessly, as if they didn’t matter.

Well, they do matter. Even if the gunman’s motives are never truly known, the splattering of so much innocent blood on a Saturday morning gives a nation as fractious as ours a chance to think about what happens when words are used as weapons, and weapons are used in place of words. Ω

[Timothy Egan writes "Outposts," a column at the NY Fishwrap online. Egan — winner of both a Pulitzer Prize in 2001 as a member of a team of reporters who wrote the series "How Race Is Lived in America" and a National Book Award (The Worst Hard Time in 2006) — graduated from the University of Washington with a degree in journalism, and was awarded an honorary doctorate of humane letters by Whitman College in 2000 for his environmental writings. Egan is the author of four other books, in addition to The Worst Hard TimeThe Good Rain: Across Time and Terrain in the Pacific Northwest; Lasso the Wind: Away to the New West; Breaking Blue; and The Winemaker's Daughter. Egan's most recent book is The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire that Saved America (2009).]

Copyright © 2011 The New York Times Company

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