Planet Earth

The Tucson Tragedy

Collide-a-ScapeBy Keith KloorJan 10, 2011 5:25 PM


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I have a bunch of swirling emotions and conflicting thoughts. But before I get to them, I want to first mention that Tucson, to me, is the beacon of Arizona. As a magazine journalist and editor, I've kept a close eye on southern Arizona since 1998, periodically visiting and writing about numerous environmental issues, such as Tucson's vaunted, far-sighted plan to reign in sprawl and preserve wildlife habitat and the rich biodiversity of the Sonoran desert. Tragedy also stalks Tuscon regularly and anonymously, which rarely makes national headlines, and the community has struggled with that, often honorably. Over the years, I've had the good fortune to meet many dedicated citizens residing in Tuscon and the surrounding area: archaeologists, ecologists, planners, ranchers, state and federal government employees, community organizers. Many of these people have spent countless hours talking with me, both in the field and on the phone. So I've got a special fondness for that part of the world and the folks there. I've long been in awe of Tucson's civic engagement with extremely vexing social and environmental issues. What happened over the weekend outside a suburban supermarket is incomprehensibly tragic for the citizens of Tucson and jarring for the U.S. Beyond the shock and sadness, there is a larger debate now playing out. On the one hand, I can see Ross Douthat's point here:

Violence in American politics tends to bubble up from a world that's far stranger than any Glenn Beck monologue "” a murky landscape where worldviews get cobbled together from a host of baroque conspiracy theories, and where the line between ideological extremism and mental illness gets blurry fast.

On the other hand, those Glen Beck rants get taken a bit too seriously by some of his more deranged listeners, as Timothy Egan informs us:

In my home state Washington, federal officials recently put away a 64-year-old man who threatened, in the most vile language, to kill Senator Patty Murray because she voted for health care reform. Imagine: kill her because she wanted to give fellow Americans a chance to get well. Why would a public policy change prompt a murder threat? Prosecutors here in Washington State told me that the man convicted of making the threats was using language that, in some cases, came word-for-word from Glenn Beck, the Fox demagogue. Every afternoon Charles A. Wilson would sit in his living room and stuff his head with Beck, a man who spouts scary nonsense to millions. Of course, Beck didn't make the threats or urge his followers to do so. But it was Beck who said "the war is just beginning," after the health care bill was passed. And it was Beck who re-introduced the paranoid and racist rants of a 1950s-era John Birch Society supporter, W. Cleon Skousen, who said a one-world government cabal was plotting a takeover.

Douthat, in his column, argues that both the Right and the Left traffic in vitriol:

But if overheated rhetoric and martial imagery really led inexorably to murder, then both parties would belong in the dock. (It took conservative bloggers about five minutes to come up with Democratic campaign materials that employed targets and crosshairs against Republican politicians.) When our politicians and media loudmouths act like fools and zealots, they should be held responsible for being fools and zealots. They shouldn't be held responsible for the darkness that always waits to swallow up the unstable and the lost.

Ah, but that's not an accurate depiction of the rhetorical landscape, says Paul Krugman:

Where's that toxic rhetoric coming from? Let's not make a false pretense of balance: it's coming, overwhelmingly, from the right. It's hard to imagine a Democratic member of Congress urging constituents to be "armed and dangerous" without being ostracized; but Representative Michele Bachmann, who did just that, is a rising star in the G.O.P. And there's a huge contrast in the media. Listen to Rachel Maddow or Keith Olbermann, and you'll hear a lot of caustic remarks and mockery aimed at Republicans. But you won't hear jokes about shooting government officials or beheading a journalist at The Washington Post. Listen to Glenn Beck or Bill O'Reilly, and you will.

(Krugman doesn't provide a link to Bill O'Reilly's sick joke, so let me oblige with the Washington Post columnist's response.) E.J. Dionne Jr. at The Washington Post echoes Krugman here:

Let's begin by being honest. It is not partisan to observe that there are cycles to violent rhetoric in our politics. In the late 1960s, violent talk (and sometimes violence itself) was more common on the far left. But since President Obama's election, it is incontestable that significant parts of the American far right have adopted a language of revolutionary violence in the name of overthrowing "tyranny." It is Obama's opponents who carried guns to his speeches and cited Jefferson's line that the tree of liberty "must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants."

So where do we go from here? "The more pressing question," Matt Bai writes in yesterday's NYT,

is where this all ends "” whether we will begin to re-evaluate the piercing pitch of our political debate in the wake of Saturday's shooting, or whether we are hurtling unstoppably into a frightening period more like the late 1960s.

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