American political discourse is toxic

By Jonathan Creasy

On 8 January a lone gunman emerged from a small crowd gathered in a Safeway supermarket located just outside Tucson, Arizona. Wielding a high-calibre handgun with a high-capacity magazine, he attempted to assassinate congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, an Arizona Democrat who was holding a “Meet Your Congress” event in the market. Along with Giffords, over a dozen members of the crowd were injured by the gunman, identified as Jared Lee Loughner, and six were killed, including a nine-year-old girl and a federal judge. Loughner was tackled and subdued by two men who were present and is now in the custody of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
Just hours after the massacre, politicians and news pundits were politicising the event, harkening back to the aftermath of the Oklahoma City bombing of 1995. Liberal politicians and commentators cried that foul play had been carried out by conservative instigators of the heated, often violent, rhetoric that has taken American airwaves by storm since the election of Barack Obama and the emergence of the Tea Party.
They are right to do so. Political discourse in the United States has become toxic. Rife with vitriolic language and thinly veiled threats of insurrection and violence, the landscape of rational debate has, perhaps, been altered irrevocably.
Some blamed Sarah Palin directly for fanning the flames of outrageous political discourse. During the past midterm elections, Palin’s website bore the image of crosshairs aimed at many contended congressional districts. One of these districts was Giffords’.
Yet, however unfair it may be to blame one incendiary political reactionary, or to condemn Loughner’s attack as straightforward political assassination rather than the act of a deranged 22-year-old, this shocking event brings to the fore the dangers of political rhetoric when it ceases to be civil and productive and becomes outright dangerous.
This is not just a warning for the United States. Of course, with contentious issues at play across that country, and the vitriol spewed by dissenting factions, the US stands out in the wake of the Tucson shooting. But across the democratic world – in Ireland and in the UK – parties rage over contentious issues. Let this be a reminder that democratic discourse is built on a foundation of civility and mutual respect in the face of opposing ideas.
There is no doubt that the issues facing the world today will shape the course of our future, and we find ourselves in particularly volatile times. But these are times in which we must celebrate the clash of ideas and foster intelligent, respectful and ultimately fruitful political debate. Shun those who might, for their own personal gains and agendas, exacerbate the discord inherent in opposing views.
Thankfully, Congresswoman Giffords appears to be steadily recovering from massive brain trauma.