The Shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and the Language of Violence

Sun, January 9, 2011

Democrats, Republicans

Before the horrendous assassination attempt on Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and the shooting of 20 people, leaving six of them dead, Giffords knew that she had been specially marked by by her opponents.  Tea Party conservatives wanted her out of office, even though she is a conservative Democrat, and weren’t afraid to use thinly-veiled calls for violence against her to achieve their goal.

Her opponent in her 2010 Congressional race staged an event to “target” her by offering voters a chance to shoot an M16. Her Tucson office had been vandalized after her vote on the health care bill in March of last year, as had other Congressional offices.  And Sarah Palin advocated for getting her out of office — her PAC site posting a map of the country with a graphic of the cross-hairs of a gun-sight on each of the offices she wanted her chosen candidates to win, one of those being Giffords’.  The Sarah Palin PAC site has taken down the map, but you can see it at her Facebook Fan Page.  Spokespeople for Palin now are claiming that the marks on the map were not intended to be cross-hairs — you be the judge.  It would certainly be consistent with her continuing theme of calling on conservatives to “reload.”

Palin certainly isn’t the only extreme conservative who’s felt that it’s appropriate political gamesmanship to use slightly veiled language of violence to promote political agendas.

Former U.S. Senate candidate Sharron Angle  frequently remarked during her race against Harry Reid that if elections don’t go the way people want, they can always resort to their “Second Amendment remedies,” suggesting that revolution was possible.  Conservative radio host Tammy Bruce prominently posts a photo on her site sitting at her microphone, casually holding a gun.   Glenn Beck is forever invoking images of rivers of blood, calling for conservatives to drive a stake through the hearts of vampire Democrats, telling his fans that he’d like to poison Nancy Pelosi’s wine, and so much more.  Beck tries to cover his tracks by writing posts claiming to promote non-violence, while continually using examples of violence and death for his fans to ruminate about.

Those who feel free to use the imagery of violence to achieve their political goals are saying how sad they are about what happened at Giffords’ town hall meeting, yet they aren’t apologizing for their reckless and careless use of gun imagery nor are they calling on their  supporters to reflect after this horrible attack and to rethink how they approach the language they use to foment their purported “revolution.”

One has to ask, at what point do people — especially those with a high profile or a media megaphone — become responsible for the actions of those who’ve taken their hyperbole to heart?  You don’t need to be the one with a loaded gun in your hand to bear some measure of moral, if not legal, responsibility for the actions of those whose anger and desperation you’ve stoked for your own political gain.

If I give a toddler a book of matches and leave her alone in my house, who’s responsible if the house burns down?  I might not have lit the match, but I created the irresponsible circumstances for the catastrophe.

Plenty of people will claim that you can’t hold politicians responsible for events that may or may not be related to their right to political free speech.   But words have power.  And words have consequences.  Sure, you’re free to stand on a soapbox on the corner to talk about your political views, but you can’t falsely shout “fire” in a crowded theater that ends up causing a deadly stampede.

The callous and careless use of the language of violence has become de rigueur in our 21st century political world.  That’s no solace to the mother of  nine-year-old Christina Greene who was killed in the assassination attempt of Congresswoman Giffords, a budding politico who had come to the Giffords’ event because she wanted to learn more about how she could be a part of the system of governing in our country.  At nine, Christina Greene was too young to understand that some who play the game of American politics have no reservations about invoking hyperbole that incites those whose lives and livelihoods hang in the balance today, and that the politicians who believe it’s acceptable to incite those feelings have no compulsion to back off that path.

I can only hope that voters will see this dangerous game for what it is and realize that politicians who believe it’s acceptable to invoke the language of violence for their political purposes, yet feel no remorse for their part in the actions of people who took their words to heart, have no place in the job of governing.

UPDATE: I wasn’t aware until this afternoon that certain progressives were also guilty of using the gun/bullseye imagery in connection with criticizing Congresswoman Giffords.  While that certainly had not gotten the coverage that certain GOP imagery has, as far as I’m concerned, there’s no excuse for this rhetoric of violence.  Let’s all put a stop to it now.

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11 Responses to “The Shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and the Language of Violence”

  1. Kimberly Hampton Says:

    Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that. – Martin Luther King, Jr.

    Thoughts and prayers go out to the victims of yesterday’s senseless shooting spree in Arizona.
    It is also time to start holding key individuals accountable as accessories to this horrific crime.
    Wake up America….we are nothing more than a sadly broken and divided country and it is only going to get worse if “We the People” do not stand up to those within our own country who wish to harm us.

  2. Lezzymom Says:

    We are all rocked by this here in Arizona. I have worked with and spent time with Congresswoman Giffords and was literally knock of my feet by the roller coaster of news yesterday. Gabby has a way of bringing people together. If anything can come from this I hope it is a matter of everyone checking themselves and returning to the professionalism that many of us remember politicians having.

    My thoughts are with her and her family as well as all of those involved here in Arizona.

  3. Chris Wysocki Says:

    “If they bring a knife to the fight, we bring a gun.” – Noted domestic terrorist Barack Hussein Obama in 2008.

    “Wake up America….we are nothing more than a sadly broken and divided country and it is only going to get worse if “We the People” do not stand up to those within our own country who wish to harm us.”

    Mr. President? Bill Ayers is on line 2.

    In all seriousness, it’s quite a leap to assume that harsh language is to blame for nuts. And it’s not like the Right has a monopoly on demonizing rhetoric:

  4. Carol Schiller Says:

    This piece is superb. While the rest of us are left shaking our heads in anger, shock and sadness, you have found the words that give context to this event.

    Surely, the casual use of violent imagery has lead to a vigilante climate. Worse, the free-for-all in gun availability that the Conservative Right continues to defend so rigorously, makes it all the more likely that this climate will lead to violent action.

    It’s painfully difficult to understand a (or find common ground) with people who would rather see a family go without health care than guns. As someone said on Twitter today “Soon, no one reasonable will be left who is willing to go into politics.”

  5. Emily Says:


  6. GloPan Says:

    Great piece, Joanne, and exactly what I’ve been thinking too. I keep thinking about that Jodie Foster movie, The Accused, for which she won an Oscar for her role as a gang rape victim. The actual rapists were not convicted, but her lawyer, Keely McGillis, successfully brought charges against all the witnesses, who stood around and cheered and abetted the crime. McGillis successfully argued that the momentum and energy generated by that disgusting encouragement was what made the crime possible, even inevitable.

  7. Adrienne Says:

    As my youth pastor used to say, when you point a finger, three more are pointing back at you.

    You may want to read this and see a small reminder of how liberals invoke violent imagery in their speech.

    Also, kudos on hammering out talking points from the Democrats. Did you wait until 21st Century Democrats sent out their email fundraiser to write this?

    The use of violence in political rhetoric is used on both sides. As we’ve seen this weekend, it has terrible ramifications, but will it go away? Probably not. We have a better shot at ridding politics of sports metaphors.

    You may also want to read up on this guy before pinning on conservatives. Please explain why he listed The Communist Manifesto and Mein Kampf as his favorite books on YouTube?

    This guy was a nutjob that didn’t belong on either side.

    It sickens men liberals are so desperate to marginalize the right that you constantly attempt to pin crazy people like this on us. Crazy and unstable people exist in this world on both sides of the political aisle. Sometimes, they really dont’ fit into any side of the spectrum and are more on another axis.

    Try getting some intellectual integrity and step outside the party lines.

  8. deborah l quinn Says:

    It’s easy to say that the gunman in Arizona was a “nutjob,” a “loner,” a “fringe character.” It’s hard to look ourselves in the mirror and see what is reflected: a nation that behaves like toddlers in a sandbox, whacking each other over the head to get the best bucket or shiniest toy car. Toddlers can be lifted out of the sandbox and separated from one another–and theoretically taught that we negotiate with words, not fists. Somewhere along the line, though, that lesson –words rather than fists, flexibility rather than ferocity– has been forgotten, erased, stamped on, deemed “weak.” That lost lesson, combined with our country’s ridiculous inability to create a rational gun law policy, create scenarios like yesterday’s dreadful shooting. It’s horrifying and appalling and yet…how long do you suppose until it happens again? Do we think that the Hard Right will tone itself down, or that the left will insist on trying to out tough-guy the tough guys? It would be laughable, if it weren’t so terrifying:

  9. David Bailey Says:

    This is an excellence piece…..and yes words do matter…..well said

  10. Michele Brown Says:

    Mental illness will exist even if language changes, or the political climate changes. Let’s have a discussion on increasing our efforts to cure mental illness.OneI in four people experience a mental health problem. Few are violent, but many are tortured by unbearable symptoms. Affixing blame for this violent act on a “deranged” young man is only significant if we then say what is to be done about that. In a country full of riches, let’s address this problem of mental illness.

  11. PunditMom Says:

    There are a variety of issues that we need to address as a society that we’re reminded about with this disaster. As someone said on the news this morning, of the shooter had come to his class falling down drunk, someone would have put him in jail and/or rehab. When he came to class showing clear signs of mental issues, there was nothing they could do. Apparently his college tried to get him into a psych assessment, but it wasn’t something they could force him to do.

    My real fear is that we’ll all talk about these issues — political dialogue that invokes violence, true gun control, mental health issues and more — only to forget about them in a few days when the next celebrity story pops up. How do we fix our societal ADD when it comes to dealing with the hard issues?

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