Local News

Local political minds re-examine civil discourse after Arizona shooting

Posted January 9, 2011 11:28 p.m. EST
Updated January 10, 2011 12:34 p.m. EST

The shooting of an Arizona Congresswoman Saturday ignited debate about the age-old practice of using inflammatory rhetoric to incite political change. 

Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik said "political vitriol" was likely a factor in the shooting that critically injured Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, and killed a federal judge, a 9-year-old girl and four others.

Jared Loughner, 22, has been charged in the shooting. He has been described as "mentally unstable" and "a loner." In a news conference Sunday, an emotional Dupnik said people with mental issues are especially vulnerable to fiery speech.

A political scientist at Peace College in Raleigh said red-hot rhetoric is nothing new. What has changed, said David McLennan, is the ease with which political discourse is disseminated, and the divisive nature of American media culture.

"We have blogs and the Internet and we have talk radio," McLennan said. 

Rallies protesting health care, immigration and wars in Iraq and Afghanistan harken McLennan back to a time when church bombings, assassinations, protests and violence were splashed all over headlines.

"We have periods in U.S. history where the discourse has been just as vitriolic, just as heated," he said. "Back in the 60s, we had anti-war and civil rights protests that were just as loud."

"There have always been assassinations and bombings," McLennan said. 

Hundreds of people shouted against health care reform outside Rep. Brad Miller's office in Raleigh in August 2009, but it was calm compared to rallies across the nation.

"I've been saying for a year and a half that I was afraid that the very extreme, hateful, menacing rhetoric and political tactics would ultimately lead to violence, somebody being hurt or killed," MIller said.

In the wake of Saturday's assassination attempt against Giffords, a Democrat who voted in favor of health care reform, drawing loud and sometimes threatening criticism, Miller is not the only one questioning whether vitriolic speech encourages violence.

"It's got to be the players who are going to have a look back and say maybe we have pushed the envelope too far," McLennan said. But he said peaceful assembly and debate is an American virtue to embrace.

Dallas Woodhouse, state director for Americans for Prosperity who has helped organize Tea Party rallies in North Carolina, said today's discourse is tame compared to other points in history.

"There's not a problem with our public discourse in America. We have strong robust debate," Woodhouse said. "This is simply a criminal act by a lunatic."

He said what happened in Tucson is horrific, but it's a risk that comes with a free society.

"It should not cow any of us from being vigorously involved in our public debate," Woodhouse said.