Tragedy in Arizona

By Richard Cohen

A year ago, we introduced a new school curriculum, Civil Discourse in the Classroom and Beyond, with this
urgent call: "There is a pressing need to change the tenor of public debate from shouts and slurs to
something more reasoned."

The tragedy in Tucson this weekend reminds us that it's a call that politicians and pundits would do well to

We may never get a clear picture of what was going through the confused mind of the Tucson gunman. But
as my colleague Mark Potok explained on NPR this morning, with all the vitriol on the airwaves, it's not
surprising that someone has taken deadly aim at an elected official.

Tea Party darlings like Sharron Angle talk about using "second amendment remedies" to change the course
of the country. The shameless Glenn Beck feeds the lunatic fringe with talk of the government herding
Americans into FEMA concentration camps and of imminent violence from mysterious forces "from the left."
Sarah Palin uses phrases like "don't retreat, reload" and shows the districts of various Democrats in
Congress, including that of Tucson's Gabrielle Giffords, in the crosshairs.

The problem isn't so much a lack of politeness. We should expect sharp elbows and a healthy degree of
ridicule to be thrown around by those in the political arena. The problem is the incendiary rhetoric, with its
violence-laced metaphors, and the spinning of paranoid fantasies. The problem is the non-stop
demonization one hears from political opportunists trolling for votes and their media allies trolling for ratings.

The sheriff in Tucson put it this way: "When you look at unbalanced people — how they respond to the vitriol
that comes out of certain people's mouths about tearing down the government — the anger, the hatred, the
bigotry that goes on in this country is getting to be outrageous."

With six dead and 14 wounded, the sheriff would have been justified in using much stronger terms.

Politicians of both parties have condemned the attack and begun to ask themselves questions about the
overheated rhetoric that may have contributed to it. Speaker Boehner has postponed the normal business of
the House for the week so that he and his colleagues can reflect on what should be done.

Let us all hope that the week of reflection is more than a brief interlude in what has become a vicious political


Ellen Brown on Mon, 01/10/2011 - 12:49.
"Speaker Boehner has postponed the normal business of the House for the week so that he and his
colleagues can reflect on what should be done." Perhaps I'm too jaded to dare believe that any change may
come from this tragedy. But I must still hope. Else the country I knew and loved really does not exist any
longer. And that would be a tragedy beyond my comprehension

Charles Harvell on Mon, 01/10/2011 - 13:00.
I know the right is resentful that they are being somewhat blamed for being at least partly responsible, they
would feel better if they could heap TOTAL blame on the left and center. The current right adage of "it is the
left that is totally evil and wrong and we are totally good and correct" will only take us to a more dangerous
future. They need to admit at least some responsibility even if they continue to blame all their woes on
others. The Limbaugh mentality needs to be addressed.

wj starosta on Mon, 01/10/2011 - 13:11.
Words are sometimes acts; they do not themselves pull triggers, but they certainly help to aim weapons.
Only today's radicals shoot first, then pitifully persuade how they have "saved" the nation.

t. delbech on Mon, 01/10/2011 - 14:12.
Thank you, Richard.

Rev. Larry Fryer on Mon, 01/10/2011 - 16:21.
I feel the signs of violence at rallies against those who fight for justice and quality has been met with violence
and death. From being called "niggers" during the course of the Health Care Reform to being shot and killed
when hearing from the voters in the Congresswoman district. Arizona has not been seen as a place for racial
equality and now some are looked upon in Alasaka as maybe promoting violence when the word reload
maybe confusing to many. Now child is dead as others are and many wounded. As we approach the Dr.
King's birthday, He was one who stood not for violence or tolerance, but love. America your colors are
showing again. Free speech?

oa on Mon, 01/10/2011 - 16:27.
Thank you for speaking the truth so clearly. There are too many irresponsible media pundits and politicians
who use inflammatory words without a care for the outcome. Our families, our country and our souls are
suffering because of them.

julie on Mon, 01/10/2011 - 16:51.
Is there any info to suggest that the congresswoman and or others killed/injured were targeted for religious,
as well as political affiliations? i believe a disproportionate number of those killed may have been Jewish.
Have not heard anything to address this issue and it did cross my mind

Rosalie Piazza on Mon, 01/10/2011 - 18:10.
Please, please continue to comment on the tragedy in Arizona. Already the radical right wing is taking no
responsibility for the hateful seed which they have sown. The shooter immediately invoked the 5th
amendment. And now has a high profile attorney. Perhaps he is crazy like a fox? What is his mental health
history? Has he ever been hospitalized?? I fear that he will be dismissed as just a crazy person, rather than
someone who may have mental health issues and was influenced by hate speech.

Marilyn on Mon, 01/10/2011 - 23:26.
I really believe that SPLC should hold Sara Palin accountable the same way that you have done with white
supremecist leaders that incite violence carried out by skinheads. She is just as guilty of inciting this violence
as they were. Do something. Please help us all.

Laura on Tue, 01/11/2011 - 06:12.
I couldn't agree more with you. However, I wonder if my anger helps us. As long as there is blaming going on,
there is fragmentation. The right and the left seek to blame each other, instead of seeking common ground
from which a real dialogue can begin. Americans have been killed by another American. Perhaps it matters
less who started it, but how we choose to respond to it. I am inspired by the courage and love of men like Dr.
King, and by the writings of William Isaacs in the Art of Dialogue. But what do I do differently so as not to
perpetuate the fragmentation that caused this tragedy? I truly hope your course can help our future leaders
with this question.