Yesterday in Tucson, Ariz., Jared Lee Loughner shot 20 people, killing 6. His apparent target was US Representative Gabriel Giffords (D-AZ), who was critically wounded and remains in intensive care.
Yet as horrifying as the shooting was, we cannot call it surprising. The rhetoric of hate and violence in our country has risen to unprecedented levels in recent years. We’ve been bombarded with talk of targeting or taking out enemies, shooting from the hip, being armed and dangerous, taking up arms, locking and loading, reloading instead of retreating, having bullseye lists, ad nauseam.
Responsible public figures should realize that such talk does not fall on deaf ears. Day after day, it builds an atmosphere of permissiveness and hammers away at inhibitions. It condones and incites anger, bigotry, and physical violence, if only metaphorically. And unfortunately there are and always will be people in our society who take such language literally. Saying “I didn’t mean it that way” is no excuse after a tragedy occurs.
There may or may not be a direct cause and effect in the Tucson shooting, but Americans should be considering carefully what this and similar incidents mean for our right of free speech and for our system of free and open government. Will thoughtful, serious public-minded citizens step up to serve as legislators if it means risking their lives? And what becomes of our country if they won’t? What kind of America do we want to live in?
Words matter. Words have power. And words have consequences.