Was President Barack Obama encouraging murder during his 2008 campaign when he said, “If they bring a knife ... we bring a gun”? Was he encouraging political violence when he said more recently of the new Republican House majority that “we are going to have just hand-to-hand combat up here on Capitol Hill?” Of course not.
Similarly, former Pennsylvania Democratic Rep. Paul Kanjorski was speaking allegorically last October when he said Florida Republican gubernatorial candidate Rick Scott should “be lined up against a wall and shot.” Such remarks are often hackneyed or tasteless, but reasonable people understand they are not incitements to violence.
Jared Loughner, the gunman charged with shooting Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., and murdering six people in Tucson on Saturday, held bizarre beliefs about “conscious dreaming” and government mind control imposed through English grammar. No serious person would connect his belief system to a mainstream political ideology.
But then there is New York Times’ columnist Paul Krugman. He places the blame squarely on the shoulders of “the crowds at the McCain-Palin rallies” and “right-wing extremism.” It is the Republicans’ fault because “the purveyors of hate have been treated with respect, even deference, by the GOP establishment.” Krugman’s solution is for “decent people” to “shun” those he holds accountable. But the logic of his argument leads straight to calling for official restrictions on political speech after shunning inevitably fails to do the job. The totalitarian temptation is an ever-present possibility with people like Krugman.
Another self-righteous voice in this debate is left-wing blogger Markos Moulitsas, who said in June 2008 that he was placing a “bull’s-eye” on Giffords’ and other Democratic moderates’ districts because of their vote on an intelligence bill, by which they had “sold out the Constitution.” Last week, a Daily Kos diarist even wrote an angry rant about Giffords, declaring, “My CongressWOMAN voted against Nancy Pelosi! And is now DEAD to me!”
Let’s be clear: The Tucson crimes were not encouraged by any such heated rhetoric. Neither the Daily Kos with its rhetorical bull’s-eyes nor the cross-hairs graphic on Sarah Palin’s website, the cross hairs used in the ads of nearby Arizona Democratic Rep. Harry Mitchell’s campaign in 2006 or the bull’s-eyes used by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee to “target” Republicans in 2009 have any relevance to this discussion.
Their elimination for the sake of political correctness would not have saved, and will not save, a single life. Even if we find some political rhetoric repellent, this has nothing to do with murder. Unless our endgame involves burning books, banning certain kinds of speech and censoring the Internet, lest something someone says or writes might inspire some crazy person to kill someone, the discussion about “toxic political rhetoric” is a waste of time. Unless your aim is to use it as a pretext to repeal somebody’s First Amendment rights.