Yesterday, January 8, as most of you know, a gunman shot U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords in the brain at point-blank range. She is alive but her condition is critical and the prognosis difficult. The assassin murdered a federal judge, a nine-year-old girl, and four other people.
I wanted to write today about some lighter-hearted topic, the Mozart fest on Radio 3, the Vivian Maier exhibit at the Chicago Cultural Center, but my grief, outrage, sense of violation are too great not to mention this latest atrocious set of murders by U.S. citizens on U.S. soil. We started the week with the assassination of a moderate Pakistani governor by one of his bodyguards, with appropriate grave head-shakings over extremism in Muslim countries. But we have our own extremists here, and it’s time we said, “enough” to them.
Rep. Giffords had received many threats because of her support of immigrant rights in a state that is setting the standard for intolerance. She also voted for health care reform, which led to further threats on her life. As the New York Times reported on January 9, “Ms. Giffords was also among a group of Democratic House candidates featured on the Web site of Sarah Palin’s political action committee with cross hairs over their districts, a fact that disturbed Ms. Giffords at the time.” Although Palin has now taken down this map, it was still up and active at the end of the day when Giffords was shot.
The assassin may be, as some news reports assert, mentally unstable, but it is to the mentally unstable that rhetoric like Palin’s, or Nevada Republican candidate Sharron Angle, speaks. During her campaign for U.S. Senate, Angle said more than once that it was time for “Second-Amendment remedies” against the Democratic controlled Congress of 2010.
Dr. David Gunn and Dr. George Tiller were both murdered by people who had been stirred by years of violent rhetoric, including “Wanted” posters, and websites that not only urged the doctors’ deaths, but gave details of their schedules, their home addresses, and the whereabouts of their wives and children. The purveyors of the websites, and religious leaders who proclaimed the violent rhetoric were never held accountable–we only spoke metaphorically, they said. Not our fault if unstable people took the words literally. Just as in Punjab, where it wasn’t the fault of violent religious rhetoric that led one of Governor Salman Taseer’s bodyguards to murder him.
When Henry II said of his Archbishop of Canterbury, “Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?” (words which, if they were spoken at all, were uttered in Latin or French; the king spoke no English) he was not surprised that his barons took him up on it. And in their heart of hearts, no bishop, Fox commentator, or politician is surprised when John Salvi or Scott Raeder or Jared Loughner uses a gun against the target of their vitriol.
My only hope is that in their secret hearts they are appalled at the effect of their language, not pleased.