Saturday, January 8, 2011

Political rhetoric blamed for Arizona shooting

The news spread quickly. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was fighting for her life after a deranged gunman went on a rampage in a scene that is becoming all too familiar in this age of mass shootings and homegrown terrorists. The shooting in Arizona left six people dead, including a federal judge and a nine-year-old girl.

The Virginia Tech shooting in 2007 sparked intense debate about gun violence, gun laws, the system of treating mental illness, and the media's coverage of these types of tragedies. Since the shootings by a Virginia Tech English major, hundreds of people have been injured or killed in similar events. The media has been blamed for inciting copy-cat incidents, played out by people with mental problems and a paranoid hatred of government policies.

Not long after the Arizona massacre, news stations were playing an interview with Giffords from last march urging Republicans, especially Tea Party members, and specifically Sarah Palin, to cool the rhetoric. Palin had posted on her Facebook page showing her congressional district in the crosshairs of a gun.

The gunman's motive is not yet known, but in Arizona's Pima County, Sheriff Clarence Dupnik suggested "all this vitriol" in recent politics might be connected to the shootings. "This may be free speech," he said at a news conference, "but it's not without consequences."

The debate has spread at a speed unprecedented even in the age of the Internet, with liberal bloggers and social media commentators blaming the attack on Palin and the violent imagery evoked by some Tea Party candidates and other conservatives during the recent midterm elections.

In a Facebook posting, Palin did not address the past language she has used but offered her condolences to the shooting victims. It was widely reported in blogs and in the media that Palin has taken down the crosshairs map from her web page.

The attack on Giffords comes after what has been a particularly ugly season in American politics, especially when it comes to last year's passage of the health care reform bill. Last March, the glass door of Giffords' Congressional office in Tucson was smashed in the middle of the night.

"Community leaders, figures in our community need to say 'look, we can’t stand for this'", she told Chuck Todd on MSNBC a few days later. "This is a situation where the rhetoric is firing people up and, you know, for example, we’re on Sarah Palin’s targeted list. But the thing is that the way that she has it depicted has the crosshairs of a gun sight over our district. And when people do that, they’ve got to realize there’s consequences to that action."

"But in fairness, campaign rhetoric and war rhetoric have been interchangeable for years," Todd said, and then asked, "And so, is there a line here? I understand that in the moment it may look bad, but do you really think that’s what she intended?"

Giffords' response: "You know, I can’t say, I’m not Sarah Palin. But I can say that in the years that some of my colleagues have served - 20, 30 years - they’ve never seen it like this."

Giffords brushed off Todd’s idiotic comments that campaign rhetoric has borrowed from war rhetoric over the years, noting that it’s much worse now than it ever has been.

Thomas Hollihan, a USC professor of political rhetoric, said people like the Arizona shooter "get affected by a kind of toxic political culture that makes them angry and paranoid that their government is being taken away." But he warned against coming to any conclusions. "People who commit crimes like this are often just unhinged," he said.

The information slowly coming out about the alleged shooter, 22-year-old high school dropout Jared L. Loughner, did not suggest he had any clear political motivation. Although he complained in online diatribes about terrorism and "mind control", what drove him to violence has not been established.

"We don't yet know what provoked this unspeakable act," President Obama said from the White House. "But we're going to get to the bottom of this."

While we still have no clear explanation of the shooter's motive, and we may never know (so far he's invoked his right to counsel), Saturday's shooting set off an eruption of anger, much of it by bloggers, but also on Web sites like Twitter and Facebook. If you spend any time online, the Tea Party seems to be the number one instigator, getting most of the blame, followed closely by Arizona's permissive gun laws and conservative media pundits such as Glenn Beck.

When asked by The New York Post if his daughter had any enemies, Giffords' father responded: "Yeah, the whole Tea Party."

In this age of the Internet, when figuring out who is responsible for the political rhetoric that set this tragedy into motion, it doesn't take long to see who the clear winner is. It's Sarah Palin.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Note to GOP - Comedy is hard, politics is harder

Speaker John Boehner and House Republicans celebrated a historic return to power this week by quickly turning the proceedings into a circus. The 112th Congress started out the week innocently enough by having the Constitution read aloud by members of both parties. Reading the Constitution is a great idea, but you would think that Republicans could do it in the privacy of their own homes or offices and save the theatrics for more important activities.

Next up for Republicans: repealing health care reform. Unfortunately, they got unwelcome news - a Congressional Budget Office estimate that this would increase the deficit by $230 billion by 2012. The CBO's nonpartisan report backed the Democrats' claims that overturning the health care law would cause a major hit to the deficit.

Republicans quickly dismissed the CBO projection as unrealistic. “CBO is entitled to their opinion,” Boehner said. “I do not believe that repealing the job-killing health care law will increase the deficit.”

What is lost in the discussion is the fact that overturning the law signed by President Obama in March would also leave 32 million more Americans without health insurance, according to experts. A good example of cost-cutting is the recent news that a second person has died in Arizona resulting form the state's refusal to pay for certain transplants. In what has become known as Arizona's "Death Panels", Arizona reduced Medicaid coverage for transplants on October 1st last year under cuts included to help close a shortfall in the state budget. Dr. Rainer Gruessner, chair of the University of Arizona Surgery Department, predicts that nearly 30 Arizonans will die this year because of the state's decision to cut these transplants.

The Republicans want to repeal health reform, but don't have any alternative ideas on how to deal with the failing health care system in this country. The whole thing is just political theater anyway, because the repeal will never reach President Obama's desk for a veto. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who is still there thanks to the lunacy of the Tea Party, has indicated that he won't even bring it to a vote. But the House has scheduled a repeal of health care reform on January 12th. But the Republicans must put on a show for their constituents.

In other news, the Republicans went from ridiculous to just plain absurd. On Thursday, two House Republicans somehow neglected to get sworn in as new members of Congress. Rep. Pete Sessions of Texas and Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania were not in the House chamber, but rather in front of a television in the Capitol Visitors Center during the swearing-in ceremony.

Sessions and Fitzpatrick were on the House floor on Thursday, voting and reading the Constitution, just like every other sworn-in member of Congress. But once Republican leaders learned that two of their members weren't legitimate members of Congress, they abruptly stopped the hearing on the health care law that was in session.

Shortly after the Rules Committee hearing was stopped, Fitzpatrick and Sessions both appeared back on the House floor and were administered the oath of office by Speaker Boehner, who mispronounced Fitzpatrick's name. But the House decided Friday to invalidate the initial votes cast in the new Congress by the two Republican Congressmen.

The week started out innocently enough. There was the freshman fundraiser hosted by Republican Congressman-elect Jeff Denham, featuring country music by LeAnn Rimes and a rare invitation to the press to attend and report on the event at the high-end W Hotel. The event clashed with the image Republicans have worked so hard to construct: citizen-legislators cleaning up the waste and extravagant ways of Washington.

By week's end, Republican aides are still crunching the numbers, but they can't get them to fit. It is now clear that they will fall far short of the $100 billion in saving the GOP promised in their election season pledge. So far they have pledged to slash $35 million from the House's operating budget. That's about 0.05% of the deficit.

The first-week Republican blunders did little to dampen Boehner's spirit. His themes of humility and austerity are intact. But the GOP is learning that its mistakes will be magnified as the new majority comes under scrutiny.

Now, as they make their clown act public, the Republican party is learning an important Hollywood lesson: comedy is hard, politics is harder.