Violent anti-government rhetoric has a target: politicians


GIG HARBOR, WASH.—In the aftermath of the murderous Tucson shootings, conservatives have been assiduously making the point that the shooter now in custody is suffering from mental illness, unconnected – unconnected, they insist – with any political ideology.

Yet what conservatives continue to avoid with equal assiduousness is connecting the dots, thus continuing to beg the vital question: that, while the shooter Jared Loughner very probably is mentally unbalanced, still his target was … a politician. It wasn’t his English teacher he went after; Loughner claims the government controls our grammar. His target was congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords.

Tellingly, conservatives must sense this connection too, witness the rush to scrub official websites of incendiary expression (ex., “Reload”) in the hours after the Tucson shooting and their unified insistence since then on no connection between rhetoric and mayhem.

“Control” – specifically government control – is the core issue here, I think: the control that government is seen to exert, for good or ill, over our lives. Moderates and liberals tend to view government as a good, that of protector and mediator against the ravages of a dog-eat-dog capitalist economic system. Conservatives by contrast, especially since the presidency of Ronald Reagan, view government not as a solution, but as “the problem.”

More recently the far right, the tea party, has pressed its belief that government not only is bad, but worse: evil. Actually, “pressed” is too polite: At town halls held throughout 2009, they screamed about “Obamacare,” the spectre of government “take-over” of health care, and the wholly specious “death panels.” If you were in the audience, as I was, that anger stifled debate completely, and many of us grew uneasy at the lack of a security check at the door.

Health care is but one area conservatives fear will fall to government control. Financial regulation is another, as is the Grail inviolate: guns and Second Amendment rights. But the massacre in Tucson gives new reason to look to government to protect us from the increasingly lethal power of firearms. Yet word is already out in the political ether that renewing debate on gun control is out; the National Rifle Association, it’s alleged, won’t have it. Isn’t that, well, controlling?

“Evil,” “bad,” “government,” “control”: The sane mind can parse this brew. But in the unbalanced mind, such brew, stirred over time and over increasing heat, can become toxic and have who knows what effect? It is no stretch to see how, with too-easy access to guns, this brew, at the command to “reload,” becomes lethal and drives the deranged individual to target the most visible proponent of that over-controlling government: his member of Congress.

Do we really need a blue-ribbon commission to connect these dots?

Adding tragedy upon tragedy to such lethal eruption is the murderous toll on innocent bystanders.

President Barack Obama, in his stirring speech for the fallen in Tucson, fittingly avoided political point-making and focused instead on the merit of those gunned down and the heroism of staff and bystanders. In benediction, he invoked the memory of the youngest victim, 9-year-old Christina Green, saying he prayed we all would live up to the America she imagined we could be.

I do too, most fervently, and I write this not to point blame, but to help reframe the political debate that is now resuming. Contrary to conservatives’ controlling insistence, ideology does have consequences. And an ideology preaching that government is evil has a target – evil politicians. Such ideology, propelled by violent rhetoric, if gone unchecked, can devour itself. The right needs to check both ideology and rhetoric and, fair is fair, the left must modulate its rhetoric, too.

Can we do that? Early evidence is promising, with House Speaker John Boehner shifting from citing Obama for “job-killing” to “job-destroying” spending. Let us carry on in our grand American experiment of self-governance—using words not to wound, as Obama urged us in Tucson, but to heal.

Carla Seaquist, a Gig Harbor resident, is author of the book, “Manufacturing Hope: Post-9/11 Notes on Politics, Culture, Torture, and the American Character.”