And I agree with most of the calls to curb the kind of violent speech that has become so common in American political debates. Michele Bachmann’s “now in Washington, I’m a foreign correspondent in enemy lines” so “I want people armed and dangerous” comment, and Sharon Angle’s “Second Amendment remedies” comment, and Sarah Palin’s “Don’t retreat – RELOAD!” comment with the cross-hairs map with Gabby Giffords’ name on it? Are totally beyond the pale, and should be unacceptable in any political system. Suggesting that we “target” a certain district or politician in an election doesn’t bother me, since the term “target” has been used in politics forever; but explicitly referencing gun violence as a solution to a supposedly tyrannical and invalid government is another ballgame. There’s no reason for it, and the right has been particularly reliant on that imagery. For example:
Giffords’ Tea Party opponent in the 2010 election, Jesse Kelly, went even further with the violent rhetoric. Kelly’s campaign held an event called “Get on Target for Victory in November.” Description: “Help remove Gabrielle Giffords from office. Shoot a fully automatic M16 with Jesse Kelly.”
Strong language in politics? Fine. Anger? Yeah, that happens too. But when you cross the line between expressing anger and making veiled (or not-so-veiled) references to violent uprising as a legitimate expression of that anger, you cannot act surprised when someone takes action in accordance with your words.
Those of us who have followed abortion-related violence for the past few decades are all too familiar with how this works. After George Tiller was murdered, I wrote about his killing in the Guardian, and said:
Pro-life organisations routinely refer to abortion as “murder”, a “genocide” and a “holocaust”. They post the full names abortion providers on their websites, along with their addresses, their license plate numbers, their photos, the names of children and the schools those children attend (sometimes with helpful Wild-West-style “Wanted” posters offering $5,000 rewards).
When you convince your followers that abortion providers are the equivalent of SS officers slaughtering innocents by the millions, tell them that “it’s all-out WAR” against pro-choicers and then provide the home addresses and personal information of the “monster” “late-term baby-killer” abortion providers you’re supposedly at war against, you can’t act surprised when those followers conclude that it’s morally justified to use the information to kill doctors.
The same thing applies here. When you tell your followers that their entire way of life is under threat from liberals, that the country is being destroyed, that the president is a terrorist, and that we’re on the path to Socialism, and then you tell them that you hope they are “armed and dangerous” and if this continues there may have to be “Second Amendment remedies,” and then you hand them a map with a list of ten names and rifle crosshairs over the places those ten people reside, and then you say “don’t retreat – RELOAD!”? When you do all of those things, you don’t get to pull out the smelling salts and act so I-have-never-been-so-insulted when someone gets a gun and follows through. Come on. Your followers were bringing guns to rallies and threatening violence and hanging effigies and busting windows of campaign offices six months ago. Threats against members of Congress tripled over the past year, and those threats came mostly from people opposed to health care reform. Judge Roll, who was killed in the Arizona shooting, had to have 24-hour protection for himself and his family because of all the threats he received from xenophobic anti-immigrant zealots, after right-wing radio jocks publicized an immigration-related decision he handed down. Put your big-kid pants on and realize that even if you didn’t mean to encourage violence, you have, in fact, been encouraging violence, and you should have known that you were encouraging violence. Because let’s be real, a whole lot of people were telling you that. You had to have seen it. The evidence was right there.
So yes, I am in favor of toning down the violent political rhetoric. Tone it down! However, if people choose not to tone it down? I am in favor of publicly shaming them, and criticizing them, and making it clear that they are totally irresponsible assholes. But I’m not in favor of banning even hyped-up, ugly political language. Direct threats? Sure. But posters with crosshairs? First, it’s not like posters with crosshairs are regular things, so a bill banning them is kind of pointless when they seem to have been disseminated exactly once. But also, as much as I find the Palin poster abhorrent, it was not saying “Go shoot Gabby Giffords.” Given the fuller context that it was a part of, it’s not difficult to see how someone may have seen that poster and heard a whole lot of other talk and thought it was a good idea to go shooting, but it’s ridiculous to say that the crosshairs imagery, in and of itself, is a threat stark enough to merit a ban.
Let’s get it together, liberals. We can criticize violent rhetoric without going straight to banning certain kinds of political speech.
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