The Politicization of a Crime
By Michael Kleen
January 12, 2011
If the grave wounding of Representative Gabrielle Giffords and the murder of U.S. District Judge John Roll and five others was not political when the shots were fired, it soon became so. No sooner had news hit the airwaves that a Democratic congresswoman was the target of an assassination attempt, pundits and politicians on the left rushed to condemn their ideological opponents on the right with the usual rhetoric against “anger” and “hatred.” In the minds of these commentators, the shooting demonstrated that vitriolic political rhetoric, coupled with the availability of firearms, foments violence. It is not the event itself, however, but the politicization of this event that is the revealing factor. The effort to use this crime to score political points is an offense to common decency and underscores the decay of political life in the United States.
Shortly after the shooting, Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik held a press conference where he blamed the incident on “certain mouths” for spewing “vitriol” about “tearing down the government.” His home state of Arizona had become, he said, “the mecca for prejudice and bigotry.” Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center appeared on the Keith Olbermann Show to blame “right-wing ideology.” On his San Francisco-based blog, a former aide to Nancy Pelosi called the shooting a consequence of “the politics of hate.” On CNN, Illinois Senator Dick Durbin blamed “toxic rhetoric” for leading the shooter to believe that violence was an acceptable response.
In order to deflect blame, pundits on the right sought to portray the shooter, 22-year-old Jared Loughner, as simply an unstable madman and a nihilist with no coherent motivation. They were quick to point out that, on his Myspace page, he listed the Communist Manifesto as one of his favorite books. Representative Gabrielle Giffords herself wasn’t even a liberal or a social democrat (i.e., Progressive)—she was a member of the moderate-to-conservative Blue Dog coalition of Democrats.
Frankly, hearing this exchange is kind of like listening to two arsonists arguing over who set the fire.
The politicization of this act of mass murder echoes the politicization of the murder of abortionist George Tiller in June 2009. At the time, I wrote that whether or not rhetoric on the right or the left contributed to that crime did not actually matter. What mattered was that partisans on either side would use that event, along with a slew of other politically-motivated crimes, as ammunition with which to demonize their opponents and claim victimhood in an escalating game of finger pointing. Over a year and a half later, not much has changed.
Sheriff Clarence Dupnik, in the process of blaming his political opponents for the shooting, managed to articulate a very real consequence of this type of violence. “Pretty soon,” he said, “we’re not going to be able to find reasonable, decent people who are willing to subject themselves to serve in public office.” Indeed, moderate voices are increasingly drowned out and scared off by threats, violence, and intolerant political rhetoric. As both Republicans and Democrats ratchet up the stakes, fence-sitters are forced to take sides or find themselves accused of being traitors or worse. Opponents are demonized, dissent is attacked, and debate is shut down, all in the name of using the law and the power of government to impose ideological and social agendas on the public by any means necessary.
An additional and interesting characteristic of the commentary about this recent act of violence is the anxiety over a broken political process. After the national elections of 2008 and 2010, pundits and politicians felt compelled to comment on the “peaceful transfer of power,” as though they were surprised and relieved that widespread violence had been avoided. After the shooting in Arizona this past weekend, however, Representative Elijah E. Cummings (D-Maryland) stated, “Part of the pride we all felt this week was due to the peaceful transfer of power that has been a hallmark of our nation. Now, that bedrock has been shaken.” If all it took was one act of violence to shake the faith in the “bedrock” of a peaceful transfer of power, one wonders how strong that faith was to begin with.
All of this leads to one conclusion: that activists on both sides of the political aisle are growing more entrenched in their rhetoric and are less willing than ever to bring their ideas to the table of reasonable debate. The fact that the argument over “toxic rhetoric” has overshadowed any investigation into the real motivation of the shooter shows that justice for the victims is the furthest thing from their minds. Furthermore, all the finger pointing, blame, and attempts to exploit this crime for partisan gain underlie a growing anxiety about the political process in the United States. It is the political process itself that is broken, and nothing more clearly illustrates this reality than the reaction to the shooting in Tuscon, Arizona.