We’ve been here before. An unthinkable, terrible tragedy occurs: the Oklahoma City bombing, the World Trade Center attacks, and on Saturday, a murderous rampage aimed at Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz. – and rounds of recrimination follow. Something is wrong. Political discourse is raging out of control. We have got to tone it down.
“It should be a moment. It's a moment for both parties in Congress to come together,’’ the often combative Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., a friend of the gunned-down congresswoman, implored Sunday on NBC’s Meet the Press. “We absolutely have to realize that we're all in this for the same reason, to make America a better place.’’
Whatever the motive for the shootings that gravely injured Giffords during a “Congress on Your Corner’’ event, the tragedy is likely to force up-in-arms political leaders to take it down a notch, and possibly even alter the initial tone of the 2012 campaign. It’s hard to imagine any politician now putting out a map of rivals, as Republican Sarah Palin did, with targets overlaid on their districts. Or a member of Congress suggesting, as Republican Michele Bachmann did, that “We need to take out some of these guys." Or a candidate like Republican Sharon Angle in Nevada, quipping: “You know, I feel a little lonely today, I usually bring Smith and Wesson along."
But while the take-no-prisoners rhetoric may subside for a while, it’s unclear whether any political truce would last longer than the temporary cooling-off periods after Oklahoma City and 9-11. There's not much interest in kumbaya in a 24/7 media culture that thrives on the latest conflict.
"I'm hoping that people would reflect on some of the language that they use and realize that honorable people can disagree, but I'm not optimistic,'' said John Weaver, a Republican advisor to former presidential nominee John McCain. "We don't reflect on much of anything in this society.''
And a number of conservatives immediately began pushing back against the notion that incendiary, anti-establishment tirades are to blame for the actions of at least one deranged individual.
“The notion that anyone’s rhetoric in the political debate spurs the Timothy McVeighs and the Jared Loughners to commit violent acts against innocent people is insidious, dishonest and divorced from reality,’’ said Republican strategist Keith Appell, referring to the man who was executed for the Oklahoma City bombing and the suspect in the Arizona shootings. “There’s a lot of overheated rhetoric on both sides, and the only person who is guilty is the lunatic who committed this.’’
In an appearance Sunday on Face the Nation, Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., criticized the Pima County sheriff who urged the nation to do some “soul-searching’’ about the vitriolic political climate in the aftermath of the rampage.
"I didn't really think that that had any part in a law enforcement briefing," Kyl said. “It was speculation.’’
Still, there were signs of the volume being turned down. Palin staffer Rebecca Mansour told a radio talk show host Saturday that the former vice presidential nominee never meant to put elected officials in crosshairs, even though Palin declared, "Don't Retreat, Instead- RELOAD!" after posting the map online.
"We never ever, ever intended it to be gun sights," Mansour told radio interviewer Tammy Bruce. “ We never imagined, it never occurred to us that anybody would consider it violent.’’
The image was removed from Palin’s web site on Saturday, and she was one of the first prominent Republicans to publicly condemn the violence that killed six people outside a Safeway supermarket.
Bachmann, whose anti-government cries have made her a hero in the conservative tea party movement, also responded to the shootings in strong terms.
"My tears are flowing, and I am stunned and angered Gabby Giffords was savagely gunned down while performing her congressional duties,’’ she said.
When the Constitution was read aloud in Congress this week, it was Giffords who read the part about "the right of people to peaceably assemble, and to petition the government for an address of grievances."
That phrase resonated with Rep. Tim Bishop, D-N.Y., who was escorted to his car by police after an unruly town hall meeting in his district in June, 2009. A number of members turned to “tele-town halls’’ and Internet chats after that summer of impassioned and sometimes raucous debate over health care reform.
“Our discourse has become so angry, and we are so quick to vilify and condemn those with whom we disagree, and I think it does contribute to what we saw yesterday,’’ Bishop said. “If there is any good that comes out of this horrific tragedy, is that all of us in the political process will rededicate ourselves to civility.’’
“Regardless of whether the motive was political, it needs to serve as a catalyst, a wake-up call, that the use of violent imagery and rhetoric is not acceptable,’’ agreed Democratic consultant Mo Elleithee, a former Hillary Clinton adviser and one-time congressional staffer who grew up in Tucson. “This is one of those defining moments in a generation, and how we react as a people will say a lot about who we really are.’’
But the constant churn of cable television and the Internet ensures that even an event as shocking as the Arizona shootings will eventually be replaced by other news. The unlimited media opportunities for political pot-stirrers fuel a competition to be the loudest and most outlandish.
“You basically have members who are free agents and are going to cater to the lowest common denominator,’’ said former U.S. Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va. “I think the leadership in Congress will try to keep it at a civil level, but the talk shows thrive on this stuff. People get elected on this stuff. "