Giffords, Loughner, Palin and basic rules of human decency

January 12, 2011
By

It seems implausible that Jared Loughner ever saw Sarah Palin’s rifle crosshairs map, let alone that it convinced him to shoot 19 people, including a 9-year old girl in the back. Based on a purely speculative look at his bizarre internet ramblings, he shares little in common with Sarah Palin or anything she’s ever said in public. While his words seem to mirror the paranoid and apocalyptic conspiracy theories of people like David Wynn Miller and David Icke (given a regular platform to spew nonsense by people like Alex Jones), they bear little resemblance to what is being said by leaders of either the right or the left. It’s just the gibberish of a sick man.

But here’s the thing. If you are a public figure in politics or media with hundreds or thousands or millions of followers, there are certain things that you just don’t do, whether or not they helped drive Loughner to go on a shooting spree.

You don’t put rifle crosshairs on people along with gunplay rhetoric, no matter what the context is.

When someone jokes about murdering the president, you don’t say “Love it!!!!“.

You don’t tell people that if your preferred candidate doesn’t win, you should take up arms to kill or physically oust them from power.

You don’t openly fantasize about murdering or assaulting public officials, no matter how clever you think it is at the time.

And you don’t advocate wild conspiracy theories about how the government is going to kill you, round you up into internment camps, coordinate terrorist attacks, impose Sharia Law, kill your grandmother, or some other crackpot conspiracy about how “they” are physically putting your very life in imminent danger.

This behavior is completely out of bounds for a public official. Even though the odds are incredibly small that a sick individual is going to hear this and be pushed over the edge into hurting someone… it does happen.  These types of incidents are increasing, and I believe that their likelihood is increasing based on the increase in irresponsible rhetoric.

And after the horror that the nation witnessed this weekend, we now know what it looks like, and it’s as ugly as anything we could ever imagine in our worst dreams. I would like to think this would make people reevaluate and examine their own words. Not just the people throwing around explicitly violent rhetoric and imagery, but everyone in the media and public sphere with a megaphone, no matter how large, myself included.

I believe that Sarah Palin, even though she will never ever admit it, did just this right after the shooting. Within hours of the shooting, she pulled down her map with the rifle crosshairs over Giffords’ district. Why? She probably won’t ever give us an honest answer, but I think it is obvious that she was ashamed by it, or deep down was deathly afraid that an unbalanced fan took those crosshairs literally. Again, knowing what we know now, the later scenario seems implausible.

But did Sarah Palin share these feelings, or at least admit that this kind of violent rhetoric and imagery was a really bad idea, even if it didn’t influence Loughner? No. She sent out a spokesperson to make the ridiculous claim that those crosshairs she was reloading were actually “surveyor symbols”. And then she cried “victim” to Glenn Beck, which has always been and remains her old stand by tactic that she relies on. And this is what Glenn Beck did as well, claiming that he’s never used violent rhetoric to accent his paranoid conspiracy theories, despite overwhelming evidence. It’s a shame, but unfortunately not the least bit surprising. Many have spent the last few days trying their hardest to push talking points that Loughner was a “leftist” and make a false equivalency of the rhetoric of the left and the right over the past 3 years.

As I stated before, this is a time for everyone to be introspective, myself included. If you aren’t, I think you need reevaluate that decision. I’ve already been doing this over the last few years, in part due to witnessing the irresponsible rhetoric of the Tea Party and anti-Obama crowd. Though I’ve never been one to use violent rhetoric directed at people (and been criticized for being a humorless PC-bot for calling people out on it), seeing this new vitriol of the right has certainly made me reevaluate what kind of language I tolerate, and what kind of language I use. Looking back, I realized that some of the careless language used by people towards George W. Bush (Hitler comparisons, hung for war crimes, etc…) was ignored as simply the cathartic venting of understandably disgruntled peaceniks. But no matter the intent, such language should not have been ignored, and should not have been tolerated. In many cases it was, in many cases it wasn’t.

And in terms of my own language online, there has certainly been an evolution. When I first started doing this in 2006, I’d be lucky if 50 people came to BlueGrassRoots to read it. The temptation for someone with a Hunter S. Thompson complex to use it as his own personal venting space was overwhelming, and good lord did I abuse it. Even as I got more readers it didn’t change much, until someone from the MSM told me that they would have cited/linked to a story that I broke if it wasn’t for the fact that I called someone a fucking asshole in the post. I’ve weaned myself off of that, but I’ll admit that it’s still a work in progress.

But at the same time, if a public figure tells blatant lies, I think it’s OK to call him/her a liar. If a public figure is wildly hypocritical, I think it’s OK to call him/her a hypocrite. If a public figure teaches children that T-Rexes were herded onto a giant boat by a 600 year old man a few thousand years ago, I think it’s OK to call him/her crazy/stupid or a very cynical con man. If a public figure loudly preaches social conservative values and throws stones at people who they think doesn’t lives up to those values, yet in their personal life does the very same things, I think it’s OK to publicly call them out on it. And if you are a public official that does any of the things I just mentioned, I think it’s OK to mock them and make them the butt of a joke.

You may very well disagree with me on this, and you may very well be right to. But I believe that if you put yourself out there in the public political sphere, where we deal with things of great importance to everyone’s life in our city, state, country and world, you should be open to criticism and accountability. Do I do this responsibly? I’m not entirely sure, but I hope so. And even if you think I don’t, all I can do is try to assure you that I make great effort to and spend a great deal of time worrying about it. I know that I’ve written things that I later regret (try writing in short bursts with no editor and not regret things), but I continually try to walk the line without crossing it.

And on that note, I think it’s relevant to share a story that I’ve never written about and haven’t shared with many people. When I mentioned how Sarah Palin must have felt when she heard that one of the people she put rifle crosshairs over had been shot point blank in the head, I say that because I know a similar feeling myself.

Recently, a public figure made a horrifyingly crude and heartless comment to the media. Following the comment, this person was savagely written about by many people online. This wasn’t a Republican/Democrat or left/right thing, so they took criticism and scorn from everyone on all sides. I weighed in on the comment in a post with what I considered a rather tame rebuke, considering how bad their quote was. A few days later, this person wrote a cryptic email to me about my post that I couldn’t really decipher. I shrugged and moved on. The next day, someone told me that the media was outside of this person’s house, as the police were there trying to talk this person out of suicide. I frantically looked online to see if this was true, but couldn’t find anything. Then I went back and looked at this person’s email again, and I finally realized what it was. It was a suicide note. That feeling, wondering if you’re partly to blame for someone’s possible death… it’s hard to put into words. Fortunately, this person was talked down by the police and is doing better today.

But this incident really shook me for a week, and made me reevaluate what I do, how I do it, and whether it is all worth the effort I put into it. I don’t know if Sarah Palin had those same thoughts in the hours after the Arizona shooting when we knew nothing about the shooter or his motives, while her people were quickly taking down her crosshairs map. I’d like to hope so. Because I know that she didn’t intend for someone to shoot any of the candidates on her map, just like I didn’t intend for this person to try to commit suicide. And while my feelings about Sarah Palin wouldn’t have changed (I don’t like her), I would have at least had an ounce of respect for her if she admitted that the map and her accompanying gun rhetoric was a very poor choice, even if it had no effect whatsoever on Loughner. But she didn’t, and is now saying “surveyor symbols” and playing victim to the gotcha-liberal-media game. It’s an unfortunate choice.

But like many other things over the past few years, this gut-wrenching event made me reevaluate what I write, and how I write it. One of the several lessons it taught me is that you can’t always assume that the people reading your work are mentally stable or secure, and there can be direct consequences from what you say. I would really hope that people like Glenn Beck, Michele Bachmann, Sharon Angle and others who use violent rhetoric and push irresponsible conspiracy theories learn this lesson as well, even if they don’t publicly admit it. Unfortunately, I doubt that they will. But I hope so.

But back to my point, I think we should at least recognize that passionately arguing for and against policies and political figures in a democracy isn’t a crime, nor should it be, and it’s not inherently a bad thing if it gets heated. If someone wants to strongly make their case that Rand Paul or Jack Conway or Barack Obama or Mitch McConnell would be a terrible public official and enact terrible policy, knock yourself out. That’s democracy. As long as your statements are based in fact and don’t cross the line, that’s fine. We all have different definitions of where that line is, but I think we should all agree that there is a line.

And about that line. Once you cross that line, rattling the cages of people with violent rhetoric or wild apocalyptic conspiracy theories based on paranoid fantasies, you are being completely irresponsible. Because if it really was true that the government was rounding people into FEMA camps, going to kill 90% of the world’s population, and the rest of the Alex Jones-type crap, it would be rational to take up arms and do something. And if you begin to make it rational for your followers to kill people based on these paranoid falsehoods, you’ve just taken a step well out of bounds of what is acceptable behavior in our society.

And I hesitate to do this, because I’m sure that people will question my motives, but I want to talk about Rand Paul in the context of this discussion. You all know how I feel about Rand Paul, but I want you to know that I don’t bring this up as some kind of gotcha partisan thing to make him look bad or score political points. You’re free to dismiss it as that, but I genuinely hope that you don’t, as it’s not my intent.

But here’s my honest question: Why does Rand Paul give credibility to someone like Alex Jones by going on his show? Each time he does so, he is endorsing the credibility of a man who thinks that the government planned 9/11, is plotting to kill 90% of the world’s population with the help of the Bilderberg Group/Illuminati, and a host of other completely insane conspiracy theories. And this doesn’t happen in a vacuum, as Alex Jones possibly has over a million listeners. Think about what would be acceptable behavior if those listeners believed that his conspiracies were true. And then think about their mental state and what percentage of them has easy access to lots of guns and bullets or worse. It’s enough to make you lose sleep tonight.

I don’t think that Rand Paul believes this stuff. At least I really, really hope not. But assuming that he does not, isn’t it beneath a United States Senator to give such a man and such irresponsible views unquestioned credibility? I don’t anticipate Rand Paul ever openly criticizing Jones, but wouldn’t it be nice if he at least decided not to go on this show anymore? If not for his own image or the image of the state, at least for the sake of decency? Like Palin, it’s not going to fundamentally change how people like myself view him and his policy positions, but isn’t this at least worth some internal contemplation?

And while we’re talking about Rand and guns and unstable people, I have to bring up the Ohio Valley Freedom Fighters. Again, I don’t think that Rand Paul believes that we need violent civil war, or that liberal journalists should be executed. At least I really, really hope not (I have an extra vested interest in this one). But assuming he does not, isn’t it at least worth condemning a group like OVFF after you speak at a rally with them? Look, I understand why you lied to the Courier Journal and said you never saw those people. You were in the heat of a campaign, plus it worked, as no one outside of the blogosphere ever bothered to write about it. But you have to realize that it’s wrong for men with AK’s to threaten to execute me, right?

When I asked you just before the primary election if Americans had a second amendment right to violently overthrow the government if it becomes too tyrannical, your staffer grabbed my camera and ended the questioning. But after witnessing the OVFF at that rally, I truly wanted to know how you felt about that on a personal level, because that rally freaked me out. And when you think about it in hypothetical terms, it’s a pretty simple answer. If our government suspended elections and starting sending out death squads across the country to execute millions of citizens, of course we would have that right. But anyone with a grip on reality knows that this is never going to happen, and certainly not anytime soon like the Jones/OVFF types think. I just wanted to see where you stood. I still would like to know where you stand. Who knows, you might put me at ease.

But in the meantime Rand, after everything the country has gone through over the last 5 days, I’d just like hope that you at least contemplate the people you associate with and lend credibility to. I know that’s unlikely, just as it is with Beck, Palin, Bachmann, Angle and Jones. But you never know. And maybe you could even stop it with the endless string of Hitler-is-coming-to-America rhetoric. That doesn’t help us, either.

And just to emphasize this one more time, I’m not saying this to score political points against Rand. For all of his faults, he avoids the overt violent rhetoric that a good deal of the right uses. These are just genuine suggestions for him to think about, whether he does or not.

So there you go. Pardon me for the personal stuff, but I had to get all of that off my chest.

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