The rhetoric in today’s political environment is toxic. Since before the 2008 presidential election, I’ve been expecting it to take a violent turn. Today it happened. It happened later than I expected, and the target wasn’t who I expected, but now we’ve gone violent.
It’s entirely possible that the pundits and candidates who utilize violent turns of phrase didn’t expect it to happen this way. Their intent matters little at this point. You never know whether violent rhetoric will be interpreted literally or figuratively, but all it takes is one person to take it literally for it to turn into a tragedy. Now it appears that a 22-year-old consipracy theorist did take it literally, and now we have a tragedy. Among the wounded is a 40-year-old Congresswoman. Among the dead are a federal judge and a 9-year-old girl.
I wasn’t alive in 1901. I just studied and wrote about the time period extensively in college. The atmosphere was somewhat like today. An influential media magnate, William Randolph Hearst, stood at the opposite end of the political spectrum from Republican President William McKinley. They also stood at opposite ends of some issues as well. I won’t bore you with the details. Hearst’s main newspaper published some inflammatory material, some of which was withdrawn after only one printing, but among them was the following poem by Ambrose Bierce.
“The bullet that pierced Goebel’s breast
Can not be found in all the West;
Good reason, it is speeding here
To stretch McKinley on his bier.”
The next year, McKinley was dead, shot by a disturbed anarchist named Leon Csoglosz.
A sane, reasonable person wouldn’t interpret Bierce’s poem as a call to arms, necessarily. A sane, reasonable person certainly wouldn’t take it as a command to go shoot a president dead. The problem is that you can’t assume that only sane, reasonable people are reading your newspaper. Or your web site. Or listening to your radio or television program.
Whether Hearst and Bierce really wanted McKinley dead was open to debate then, and never really was settled conclusively one way or the other. But some of the inflammatory material was in Csoglosz’s posession. Neither Bierce nor Hearst went to jail, but Hearst’s presidential ambitions died along with McKinley, for obvious reasons.
When I heard the stories about chants of “Terrorist! Kill him!” at a Sarah Palin rally in 2008, I thought of Hearst and Bierce and McKinley. When Palin’s PAC released a map with targets on the districts of representatives who voted in favor of Obama’s health care plan, I thought of Hearst and Bierce and McKinley.
Gabrielle Giffords, the wounded U.S. Representative, was one of the targets on the list.
I suspect Palin’s presidential ambitions are about to take a Hearst-like turn.
But there will be other effects as well. Freedom of Speech is protected in the Constitution, but there will be calls against political speech like Palin’s map and the chants at her rally. There probably already are. Freedom of the Press has been in danger for decades, even though it is also protected in the Constitution. There will be calls for further regulation on that, at the very least. And do I even need to mention that Gabrielle Giffords is about to become a much more liberal Jim Brady?
The violent rhetoric doesn’t just threaten a political career. Now it threatens to damage causes near and dear to that particular candidate’s heart as well.
Now I want to tell a story. A personal story.
I’ve spent a little bit of time talking with politicians, both on the left and right. When I was 19, I met Rep. Mel Hancock, a conservative Republican from Springfield, Mo., the same place that brought you John Ashcroft. Mel Hancock was Tea Party 20 years before Tea Party existed. A classmate introduced me to him as “a conservative writer.”
“I don’t care if you’re a flaming liberal,” he said. “Just don’t be a moderate. Believe in something.”
You read that right. Somebody every bit as conservative as Sarah Palin, admitting that liberals aren’t going to cause the world to end.
A month or two after I met Mel Hancock, I heard a Democratic state representative say, “Let’s kill Hancock.” I’m pretty sure I even caught it on tape. My editor wasn’t comfortable with the story I wanted to print, so I never did anything with it. And nobody in that audience was going to take it literally. But I was offended, especially after Hancock’s comment to me.
Hancock had the right attitude. Some years your party wins. Some years it loses. Two years, four years, or even 10 years of the other party in power isn’t going to cause the world to end, and when you talk to an experienced politician away from the pulpit, you can see that they know that.
Let’s stop acting like it. Before more people die senselessly, and before we endanger any further the rights that make our country unlike any other.