Editorial: Democracy Shot Down

The psychotic episode last week in Arizona, leading to a half dozen deaths and a federal legislator in critical condition, reflects the mutation of hatred into the most detestable of actions.

It is predictable that everyone under the sun has deplored the actions of 22-year-old Jared Loughner who opened fire on U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) and others at a Tucson meet and greet. Who isn’t conceptually against lethal violence imposed on fellow human beings?

The far more important question, however, is what we see when we look in the mirror at ourselves as a society.

Giffords, who is the daughter of a Jewish father and Christian Scientist mother, is known as a warm, friendly, open woman. Just days before she was shot by Loughner’s semiautomatic weapon, she had resworn her oath of office by placing her hand on the Tanakh (Jewish Bible) and offering a great big smile as she entered her third term in Congress.


The tragedy took the life of Arizona’s chief federal judge, John Roll; Congressional aide Gabriel Zimmerman, 9-year-old Christina Green; and Dorothy Morris, Dorwin Stoddard and Phyllis Schneck, all in their 70s.

Arizona talk show hosts were quick to denounce any blame that might be attributed to the common, vitriolic discussion of public affairs, instead branding Loughner as a psychotic individual . Yet it’s not enough to say that because the shooter in this case was nuts, everyone else is off the hook. We as a culture set a backdrop that seems to show no decent boundaries when engaging in public discourse.

It’s not that we should be censoring what other people say; rather, it’s that not nearly enough people censor themselves. The airwaves are dense with commentators, politicians, officeholders and others who believe they owe no responsibility to the greater community to set an example of civility, respect or tolerance in their rhetoric.

To say that rabid talking heads didn’t pull Loughner’s trigger is a cheap and easy sleight of hand. Doesn’t the increase in mean, polarizing language that bombards us 24/7 have an impact on those who are otherwise imbalanced? Aren’t they affected and encouraged to act when they might otherwise not be?

Tim Egan of the New York Times wrote an excellent column addressing these issues, and his final words are more apropos to the situation than anything we could possibly construct:

“And the long-overdue revulsion (about incendiary speech) 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.”