Extremist Rhetoric, Violence and American History
The massacre in Tucson has generated a major and intense debate across the country about whether the overheated political climate—the rhetoric, the “vitriol, “extremist speech”—has influenced or motivated the Tucson shooter to commit his dastardly crime.
Just as reflected in the commentary on this site, the national opinion runs the gamut, from holding the shooter solely and 100 percent responsible, to holding personalities such as Sarah Palin and Rush Limbaugh solely and 100 percent responsible—and everything in between.
Even if there were to be someone else partially responsible, it is of course entirely too premature at this moment to lay blame on anyone or anything, other than the shooter.
Nevertheless, in my opinion, it is entirely appropriate to calmly and rationally investigate whether an overheated political climate, whether public personalities—especially those held in high esteem, revered, cult-like idolized—on any part of the political spectrum can, through their rhetoric, vitriol, extreme or hate speech, influence or incite an individual—especially a highly susceptible or unstable one—to commit acts of violence.
My personal opinion is that, in general, a popular, eloquent and compelling public personality or politician, whether from the left or from the right; a popular and persuasive radio or TV personality, whether from the left or from the right; any influential demagogue or even a misguided religious leader could easily influence a troubled, paranoid, deranged or mentally ill individual—a “nutjob”—to, at best, misinterpret irresponsible and incendiary rhetoric by such personalities or, at worst, take such utterances as a “coded” go-ahead, encouragement, blessing, even a command to commit an act of violence.
It is also my humble opinion that—if the Tucson shooter is found to have been clearly motivated by the left, right or center—it is entirely appropriate to ask those in positions to influence public opinion to please exercise a little more caution, a little more responsibility, a little more common sense. Such should not infringe upon anyone’s political freedom of speech.
However, this is just the opinion of one person, a layman when it comes to such things.
To see what others, more expert and experienced, have to say on this important issue, please read today’s “Room for Debate” in the New York Times, where the Times has invited seven knowledgeable outside contributors to discuss whether there is a tie between political speech and the violent acts of unbalanced individuals.
The experts include historians, authors, history professors and scholars at several prestigious universities and institutions.
Not only do they address the possible effects of inflammatory speech on unbalanced individuals, if any, but also related issues such as freedom of speech, guns availability and control, the identification and control of mentally ill people, etc., all with some great historical perspectives.