Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Hate Speech

I had intended to say nothing about the tragedy in Tucson. It was madness, and in the sorry way of mad acts, it does not lend itself to the discovery of meaning. To try to find enlightenment in such travesties reminds me of the efforts of religious zealots to ascribe some discernible meaning to earthquakes and solar eclipses. We all scoffed and were repulsed when fundamentalist Christians read the will of God into the attacks on 9/11, and when fundamentalist Muslims did so after the tsunami in Southeast Asia.

Now we see observers on the left of the political spectrum attempting to interpret the shootings through the distorting prism of their ideology. Before we even knew the name of the killer or anything else about him, two prominent columnists, one at the New York Times and the other at Newsweek, declared that the shootings were animated by the political rhetoric of the right. This goes beyond irresponsible journalism -- it is itself a form of madness. And now this morning I find a colleague of mine, an active campaigner for liberal causes, posting on Facebook her conviction that "Sarah Palin bears a special responsibility for the shooting of Congresswoman Giffords." I submit that such irresponsible and inflammatory rhetoric is precisely the kind of hate speech which she apparently seeks to condemn. This sort of hysterical, ideologically-driven nonsense must stop if the political discourse in this nation, which has become dangerous on both the left and right, is to be defused.

The hysteria goes beyond irresponsible speech, however; the next step is always irresponsible legislation. Yesterday I heard of a Pennsylvania congressman who is proposing a ban on the kind of extended ammunition clips which the killer is reported to have used. I have learned to expect such puerile behavior from members of Congress. It is as if the congressman is saying: "We can't stop the lunatics from shooting innocent people, but we can make it difficult for them to shoot more than seven or eight at a time." This nonsense, like the hysterical rhetoric, also has to stop.

The sad fact is true that, as Harry Truman said, any nut who can afford to buy a suit can kill a president. On the very eve of his assassination, Jack Kennedy observed that if somebody with a rifle wanted to kill him, there was no way to stop it. What is needed now, in the wake of this monstrous, irrational act, is mature, rational response. None of us, of any political persuasion, dampens the flames by fanning them.