President Obama delivered a compassionate speech Wednesday evening to a packed arena at the University of Arizona. Obama’s lengthy oration balanced an emotional and sometimes tearful acknowledgement of the individual victims of the shooting last Saturday with an equally emotional show of gratitude to the men and women who subdued the gunman and the first responders who cared for the fallen. It was both a moving tribute to those killed and injured last Saturday as well as an uplifting and inspiring call for Americans to do better. In the speech, Obama passionately asked that we “make sure that we are talking in a way that heals, not in a way that wounds” and that we “not use this as one more occasion to turn on one another.”
Sadly, the political discourse both preceding and succeeding his speech has been as incendiary and divided as ever. As Professor Schanzer pointed out in his earlier post on this subject, Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik immediately politicized this tragic event with his comments on the day of the shooting. Although his comments were not aimed specifically at any particular party, they elicited a vicious response from many commentators on the right. The ensuing debate has only highlighted how vitriolic and incendiary the rhetoric from both sides has become. Obama’s speech transcended this recent bloody debate. Sarah Palin’s video response posted on her Facebook page Wednesday morning, however, quickly delved right into the middle of it, only serving to perpetuate the indecency of the current exchange. Where President Obama was thoughtful, restrained, and even-handed, Ms. Palin was inflammatory, accusatory, and defensive.
Palin’s response spent a little over a minute in a brief, but appropriate tribute to Ms. Giffords and the other victims. The remaining six minutes, however, are little more than a self-serving retort to the criticism of Palin herself. When I first saw the video, I was shocked that Palin had the audacity to use over 80% of her first public comments since the tragedy in self-defense. Despite the well-intentions behind her tribute to the victims, Palin adds a serious touch of insincerity to the entire production by using the bulk of the response as a personal vindication.
Obama’s and Palin’s responses highlight two major debates that need to happen. The first has to do with various policy alterations/initiatives that might be warranted following this tragedy, particularly those having to do with gun control and mental health care. Just as important, however, is the debate over how our political discourse should play out. Palin claims that a debate over civility in politics should not be catalyzed by this tragedy because the “random acts of a criminal should not provide a pretext to stifle debate.” First of all, attempted assassination is anything but a “random act.” It is premeditated and carried out with a specific purpose. And second of all, attempted assassination is a blatant political act, inexorably linking it to a broader discussion of our political atmosphere.
Although there is no clear cut cause and effect between any one individual piece of incendiary rhetoric and this terrible shooting, I firmly believe that Palin’s now infamous cross-hair map, Sharron Angle’s call for “second amendment remedies,” and Joyce Kaufman’s affirmation that if “ballots don’t work, bullets will” have contributed to the current stand-off atmosphere and exacerbated gridlock. Just as a clear cut cause and effect cannot be proved between incendiary rhetoric and violence, neither can a distinct line be drawn between the two. Sarah Palin should have used her response to repudiate her role, however minimal or tangential it may have been, in contributing to the violent and inflammatory political atmosphere leading up to the attacks. This self-effacing action would have immediately calmed the rhetorical onslaught from both sides and perhaps paved the way for a more respectful and calculated debate. Her actual comments, however, turned out to have exactly the opposite effect.
In his speech, President Obama asked that “as we discuss these issues, let each of us do so with a good dose of humanity.” Just as Obama laid the groundwork for a long and arduous series of serious debates regarding our political climate, Ms. Palin further encouraged the incendiary, zero-sum mindset that has consumed our political discourse thus far and put us in this position of gridlock. The debate in the House over health care repeal next week should provide a window into whether or not Obama’s message has been taken to heart by the decision makers in both parties.
The greater debate over civility in political discourse, however, will be influenced by the collective power of the American people to take control of their system of self-government. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes said almost a hundred years ago that the freedom of speech ends with “yelling fire in a crowded movie theater.” Today, in this era of the 24/7 news cycle and mobile information devices, it may have to end with violence-inciting graphics over political districts and overt calls for violence against our political leaders. Until the American people demand better from their politicians and provide incentives for them to act in a respectful and civil manner, however, it is unlikely that any significant change will take place.