Three days before the shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, a courageous Pakistani politician was shot dead by one of his guards.
The circumstances of the two shootings, of course, were very different. Salman Taseer had infuriated conservative Muslims by criticizing his country’s apostasy law, which prescribes death for insulting Islam. Much of Pakistan’s media made excuses for the killer, while leading clerics denounced the victim. Top politicians were too timid to attend Taseer’s funeral.
In the United States, by contrast, the media and a bipartisan array of politicians praised Giffords, a Democrat from Arizona, as she struggled for survival. President Obama traveled to Tucson to deliver a healing message.
Yet a thread links these two crimes and their victims: Before they were shot, both Taseer and Giffords were battling for moderation and against the politics of hatred in their respective lands.
In Taseer’s case, the struggle was far more stark. He called for an inclusive Pakistan in which apostasy laws aren’t used to persecute minorities. But in a country where feudal landowners rule, illiteracy is high and unemployment is rampant, his campaign put him in acute danger. Angry youths like his killer, Malik Mumtaz Qadri, look for guidance to radical mullahs who preach hate.
Giffords, a centrist, pleaded for more tolerance in a state bitterly divided over immigration and health care. The week before the shooting, she e-mailed a friend: “We need to figure out how to tone our rhetoric and partisanship down.”
She had good reason to worry. In March, after she voted for Obama’s health care bill, the glass on the front door of her Tucson office was shattered.
During her re-election campaign last year, her opponent, Jesse Kelly – a Republican with tea party backing who defeated a moderate Republican in the primary – appeared in a Web advertisement holding an assault weapon. According to news reports, he said at a rally, “… if you dare to stand up to the government, they call us a mob. We’re about to show them what a mob looks like.”
This kind of vitriol – the constant demonization of government with language that invites violence – has become the norm for some conservative pundits and candidates. Jared Lee Loughner, the accused Tucson shooter, appears to be deranged and has no known political affiliation. Yet, in troubled times, the mad and the unstable can find validation in the language of a Jesse Kelly and of other rhetorical bomb throwers.
Talk of “gangster government” (a term used by Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., the founder of the House Tea Party Caucus) is magnified many times over by repetition on chat shows and the Internet. FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III observed after the Tucson shooting: “The ubiquitous nature of the Internet means that not only threats, but hate speech and other inciteful speech, is much more readily available to individuals than … it was eight or 10 or 15 years ago.” Such language can help provoke “lone wolves or lone offenders” into “undertaking attacks,” he said.
Yet, unlike in Pakistan, the shooting of Giffords offers a chance for our pols and pundits to modify their language. It’s telling to note who has and hasn’t done this so far.
Congressional Republicans, including Bachmann, paid tribute to Giffords. (But will Bachmann stop tossing vicious verbal grenades at opponents?)
Rush Limbaugh, however, shrilled that “the left” was out to suppress debate. Newt Gingrich used the moment to accuse liberals of being weak on terrorists. And Sarah Palin, whose website had included a U.S. map with cross hairs on the districts of 20 Democratic candidates, including Giffords’, has not spoken publicly about the shooting. Instead, she posted an Internet video calling criticism of her rhetoric a “blood libel.”
Unlike the mullahs of the right, Sen. John McCain unequivocally denounced the Tucson shooter, saying, “Whoever did this, whatever their reason, they are a disgrace to Arizona, this country, and the human race. …”
Nor did they grasp the message of Giffords’ astronaut brother-in-law, Scott Kelly, which was beamed down from the International Space Station. He decried the “unspeakable acts of violence and damage we can inflict upon one another, not just with our actions, but also with our irresponsible words.”
Kelly added a phrase that should shame the pols and pundits for whom vitriol is an elixir: “We’re better than this.”
We’re so different from Pakistan, with its sermons of hate, aren’t we? Aren’t we?
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