After Arizona Shootings, President Extends Message of Civility
The political world is crying out about one word this month: civility. Since 22-year-old Jared Loughner shot six dead and injured thirteen others in Arizona on January 8th, politicians and political commentators have tried to explain away what could have caused such a terrible event. The conclusion, we are told, is that we, as a society, need to be more civil towards one another—especially when it comes to political differences.
President Obama set the tone with his words1 at the January 12th memorial service for victims of the shooting. Following days of political finger-pointing over who was to blame, Obama avoided politics and stuck to one simple message: the call for civility.
“At a time when our discourse has become so sharply polarized—at a time when we are far too eager to lay the blame for all that ails the world at the feet of those who think differently than we do—it’s important for us to pause for a moment and make sure that we are talking with each other in a way that heals, not a way that wounds,” he said.
Though Obama didn’t address the current political climate directly, his message was clear. In the days after the shooting, a kind of political blame-game had commenced, with Democrats blaming Republicans for their violent rhetoric, and Republicans blaming Democrats for using the shooting as political leverage.
Finger-pointing was most notably directed at Sarah Palin. Liberals and pundits wasted no time in blaming her for the way she has allegedly inflamed political discourse over the past few years. There was, indeed, evidence2 to blame Palin—she had put a map on her Facebook page that literally placed crosshairs on certain House Democrats who voted for health care reform and who were facing tough reelections. One of those Democrats was
Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, the target of the assassination attempt in Arizona.
On the other side of the spectrum was Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT), who was accused of using the shooting for his own political benefit when he cited it in a fundraising letter. His words suggested that conservative extremism was to blame for what happened in Arizona.
“Have right-wing reactionaries, through threats and acts of violence, intimidated people with different points of view from expressing their political positions?” wrote Sanders.
Obama put an end to the back and forth between the two parties with his speech in Tucson. No matter how gun-happy Palin’s words may be, or how eager the Democrats are to blame right-wing conservatives, the President tried to avoid placing blame and instead encouraged self-reflection and common courtesy.
Of course, it is questionable how long this call for civility will actually last. In an article3 titled “Any Pause in Harsh Rhetoric May be Short-Lived,” the Associated Press cites the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, which prompted lawmakers to vow that they would unify the nation; less than a year later, a partisan argument over the budget caused the government to be temporarily shutdown. David Brooks, columnist at the New York Times4, also cast doubt on this new, hopeful attitude:
“Of course, even a great speech won’t usher in a period of civility,” wrote Brooks.
It’s not that words don’t hold power. Obama’s speech certainly impacted Americans all across the board—even Glenn Beck and Bill O’Reilly halted their criticism and applauded his message. But it’s quite possible that this moment of national unity, of a common drive for more civility in political discourse, is only temporary. Sarah Palin, for one, didn’t waste any time returning to her old ways. Days after the shooting, in a home video from Alaska, she used the term “blood libel,” a phrase that has long been linked to anti-Semitism. Oops.