- The Washington Times - Monday, January 10, 2011

Saturday’s shootings in Tucson, Ariz., have sparked calls for restraining political rhetoric, but some of the most vociferous groups are the same ones already blamed for the harsh climate, and that’s raising deep questions about where robust debate ends and incendiary speech begins.

From MoveOn.org on the left to tea party activists on the right, the shootings — which left six dead, including a 9-year-old girl, and 14 others wounded, including Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, the Arizona Democrat who was hosting an outdoor meeting with constituents - have led to calls for one another to tone it down.

But with the exception of some soul-searching reporters, few have shouldered any of the blame themselves, and instead have seized on the tragedy to demand opponents silence themselves.

“It is ironic that those who are calling for civility are insinuating into their remarks uncivil attacks on the other side,” said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania and one of the country’s foremost experts on political discourse.

Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik has called the 22-year-old shooter “unbalanced,” and there is no indication yet that he was incited by any particular strain of political belief. Still, Sheriff Dupnik went on to blame “the anger, the hatred, the bigotry that goes on in this country” as a contributing factor to the shooting, igniting the finger-pointing from all sides of the political spectrum.

“We must put an end to the rhetoric of violence and hate that has exploded in America over the past two years,” MoveOn.org said in an e-mail to supporters that, while not mentioning the tea party groups by name, seemed to bracket the time frame during which tea party criticism has arisen, and after MoveOn’s own vociferous battles with President George W. Bush.

In September 2007, the day Gen. David H. Petraeus was to testify before Congress about progress under Mr. Bush’s Iraq war surge, MoveOn secured a full-page ad in the New York Times with the banner words “General Petraeus or General Betray Us,” attempting to undercut Gen. Petraeus’ credibility. In 2010, after President Obama tapped Gen. Petraeus to lead his own Afghanistan troop surge, MoveOn removed the ad from its website.

MoveOn didn’t respond to a message seeking comment about the petition drive.

In Florida, meanwhile, warring tea party factions blamed each other for the decline in civility. Everett Wilkinson, South Florida Tea Party chairman, said he has been condemning violence for the last year, and then went on to say an opposing tea party group makes violent threats.

A leader of that other group, Peg Dunmire, shot back that Mr. Wilkinson has “become violent in public settings” and said that’s what’s souring public discourse.

“Antics like that give rise to more violence and should be removed from the body politic,” she said.

Amy Kremer, chairman of the national Tea Party Express, said the finger-pointing needs to be put on hold while the families mourn those who were killed or comfort those wounded.

“There’s a time and place for everything, and that’s not what’s needed right now. This should be a time of outreach and love and support,” she said. “It’s just disgraceful. Anybody that is using this for political games should be ashamed of themselves.”

And in an interview, Rep. Jack Kingston, Georgia Republican, told the Associated Press that Sheriff Dupnik should cool it himself, saying the sheriff’s attempt to link the shooter to the tenor of public debate was “irresponsible.”

Mrs. Giffords herself, in an e-mail sent the day before the shooting to Trey Grayson, Kentucky’s secretary of state and a Republican, suggested the rhetoric has gotten out of hand. Mr. Grayson released the e-mail to a Kentucky reporter.

“After you get settled, I would love to talk about what we can do to promote centrism and moderation,” Mrs. Giffords wrote. “I am one of only 12 Dems left in a GOP district (the only woman) and think that we need to figure out how to tone our rhetoric and partisanship down.”

Much of the weekend’s criticism has been aimed at talk-show hosts or guests on the Fox News Channel — a charge the network’s president, Roger Ailes, said was unwarranted.

“It’s just a [expletive deleted] way to use the death of a little girl to get Fox News in an argument,” Mr. Ailes told hip hop mogul Russell Simmons, founder of GlobalGrind.com. Still, Mr. Ailes said he’s told his own network to “shut up, tone it down, make your argument intellectually,” and said he hopes “the other side does that.”

MoveOn and many other liberal advocacy groups singled out former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin for criticism, pointing to her political target list of lawmakers she wanted to be unseated in last year’s elections. But liberal groups use the exact same terminology about targeting lawmakers for defeat, along with references to bulls-eyes, battles and fights, underscoring just how ingrained warfare imagery is in politics.

Ms. Jamieson, the political communications expert, cautioned against overstating the level of vitriol in today’s debates.

She said there have been some historic lows, such as the outburst from a South Carolina congressman during Mr. Obama’s address to Congress in 2009. But in general, she said the debate is not unusually harsh by history’s standards.

“This is within the historical norm. There isn’t a difference as far as I can tell in the amount of incivility that exists. There is a difference in the acceptability of what’s there, and as a result we think there is more of it than there actually is,” she said. “The danger is that we’re crying wolf all the time and not recognizing that for much of the typical year, Congress is highly civil.”

She said one model for civil political discourse is the proceedings on the House floor, which are governed by the strict rules of decorum contained in Jefferson’s manual, a guidebook for parliamentary procedure written by Thomas Jefferson.

“We should have a standard for appropriate discourse that all sides agree to,” she said.

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Manage Newsletters

Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide