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Editorial

Vitriol and violence

The clearest lesson from Tucson is that hyper-partisanship debases our national discourse.

January 11, 2011

If there's a political lesson to be learned from Saturday's shooting deaths in Tucson, it's eluding the partisans on both wings. On the left, many see the attempted assassination of Democratic Rep. Gabrielle Giffords as the logical result of overheated anti-government rhetoric from the "tea party" movement and conservative pundits. On the right, outrage is just as keenly felt, only it's directed at left-wing critics who seek to score political points from a tragedy that should rightly be blamed on a deranged individual, not a party or philosophy. The real lesson lies somewhere in the middle.

Jared Lee Loughner, the 22-year-old who allegedly killed six and wounded 13 others in addition to Giffords, is by all accounts a highly unstable young man whose political leanings are reflected in his paranoid Internet rants about government thought control via grammar and the necessity of returning to the gold standard. Although such right-wing pundits as Fox News commentator Glenn Beck have elevated similar blather on the gold standard from the lunatic fringe to just the fringe, it's not fair to blame Beck — or Sarah Palin, or the tea party, or Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer — for the massacre. We don't, and may never, understand the forces that drove the alleged shooter, but it's safe to say that his own demons were primarily to blame.

That doesn't mean, however, that anyone should condone the increasingly incendiary and violent rhetoric that characterizes today's political debate. In the wake of the shootings, Palin is taking heat for posting a map on the Web with gun sights poised over 20 congressional districts, including Giffords', because they were swing seats she was targeting in the midterm elections. What's distressing about this isn't that such symbolism prompted Loughner to kill (a highly dubious notion at best), or even the comical assertions from Palin's aide that the symbols were meant to represent surveyors' sights rather than gun sights. The real problem is that a former vice presidential candidate and possible 2012 presidential hopeful thinks violent imagery directed at political opponents is acceptable, and her legions of supporters and apologists see nothing wrong with it.

The right bears the brunt of responsibility for this poisoned atmosphere, but it by no means has a monopoly on hate-inspiring political speech. The resulting hyper-partisanship is bad not because it encourages political assassinations but because it debases discourse and fuels anger, incivility and stubbornness. The deliberative bodies that run government can only function smoothly if they're composed of reasonable people willing to act in the interest of the nation and capable of compromise; does that sound like today's Congress? Saturday's shootings don't justify an attempt to, as a Wall Street Journal editorial put it Monday, "rule certain people and opinions out of bounds." But they offer an opportunity to tone down the vitriol.

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