Heated rhetoric, social networks, and armed pyschos: a deadly combination?

Back during the health care debate, before last November's election, Ms. Palin posted a Twitter post stating "Don’t Retreat, Instead - RELOAD!"
Written by David Gewirtz, Senior Contributing Editor

Arizona Representative Gabrielle Giffords, 40, married to an astronaut. Shot in the left hemisphere of her brain, fighting for her life at the University of Arizona Medical Center.

United States federal judge, John McCarthy Roll, chief judge for the District Court for the District of Arizona was 63. Dead.

Christina Taylor Green, also a representative, elected to her school's student council. She was 9 years old when she was shot. Dead.

Dorothy Morris, 76. Dorwin Stoddard, 76. Phyllis Schneck, 79. Dead, dead, and dead.

Gabriel Zimmerman, 30, engaged to be married, a staff aide to Congresswoman Giffords. Dead.

Six people shot dead Saturday at a what now seems like the ironically-named Safeway at the La Toscana Village in Tuscon.

It wasn't a terrorist attack. Instead, the alleged shooter is 22-year-old Jared Lee Loughner. Authorities think another man is also connected with the shooting and is still at large.

Those are the facts. The feelings are much harder to deal with.

The Internet has exploded with anger, accusations, and acrimony, with Sarah Palin falling squarely into the cross-hairs of bloggers and pundits. There is some reason.

The rhetoric factor

Back during the health care debate, before last November's election, Ms. Palin posted a Twitter post stating "Don’t Retreat, Instead - RELOAD!"

More disturbingly, she posted an image on her Facebook page containing images of cross-hairs above a list of politicians to defeat.

Rep. Giffords was one of the politicians Palin's Facebook graphic had targeted with a cross-hair (I added the yellow highlight).

In March, I wrote an article on Palin's use of these words and images, Is Sarah Palin turning Facebook and Twitter into her own weapons of mayhem and destruction? In light of Saturday's events, it's worth giving another read.

Here was the very important question I asked in that article:

Mrs. Palin would probably be horrified if someone were actually killed or hurt as a result of her vivid Facebook and Twitter communiques.

I also know that most Americans will properly interpret those messages as vivid calls to oust sitting officials with more conservative replacements.

Most Americans are very aware of the consequences of violent action and would not consider attacking anyone.


These online tools, which are so easy to post to, can be now be used to reach the masses far more effectively even TV advertising.

Palin has 1,504,790 Facebook fans and 116,715 Twitter followers. Out of all these people, is it possible that one or two are unhinged enough to interpret Palin’s iconography and powerful calls to action more literally than figuratively?

Whether purposefully or inadvertently, is Palin turning Facebook and Twitter into weapons, inciting the masses to destructive behavior?

In light of this weekend's tragedy, that statement is disturbingly prophetic. The question, though, is this: is it Palin's fault?

The answer is not simple. Palin is a huge national figure and she posted an image with Rep. Gifford's name an a target reticle. I have no doubt that was meant as "messaging" and not a desire to incite violence, but the fact is, a sitting United States member of Congress is now fighting for her life after being shot in the head by a wacko.

Powerful rhetoric and hyperbole is necessary in today's world. It's necessary to break through the noise and get attention. It's necessary to get the message through, because otherwise nobody will listen.

I know this personally. I've written articles with low-key headlines that garnered few readers, and articles with wildly hyperbolic headlines that drew huge reader numbers. With so much material out there, getting attention means standing out from the crowd.

Sarah Palin is a master at getting attention. There's nothing wrong with that. There's also nothing wrong with hyperbole. However...

It was, absolutely, a mistake to use gun sights to target politicians for defeat. It's certainly not Ms. Palin's direct fault that the event in Arizona went down. The fault rests entirely with the shooter or shooters.

That said, do you think it was irresponsible for Ms. Palin to use rhetoric and actual images of targets?

Rhetoric is a powerful political and entertainment tool. Glenn Beck uses it regularly, and whether you like him or not, there's no denying he puts on a highly entertaining show. While many of his statements and arguments are of debatable taste, sanity, or historical accuracy, he's never claimed to be a news reporter (although he does appear on a news station).

That said, some of Beck's statements have had a tinge of violence in them. On May 17, 2005, his target was Michael Moore:

I'm thinking about killing Michael Moore...I could kill him myself, or if I would need to hire somebody to do it,...No, I think I could. I think he could be looking me in the eye, you know, and I could just be choking the life out. Is this wrong?

Not all that we see attributed to personalities is necessarily true. The blogosphere is rife with a supposed quote from Beck, stating, "Every night I get down on my knees and pray that Dennis Kucinich will burst into flames." However, if you do a complete Google search, there is not one reputable source reference that provides evidence that this is, in fact, a true quote.

Rhetoric is not limited to conservative speakers, although -- as in most things -- the rhetoric of the left is not nearly as forceful as that of the right. I looked hard to find a quote from John Stewart, for example, that could be construed as inciting violence, and came up short.

However, that doesn't mean everything Stewart says is true. I devoted a few pages in my book, Where Have All The Emails Gone? discussing in detail how a segment on The Daily Show had conflated two separate incidents during the Bush administration and presented them as one -- just to make President Bush's White House look bad. Each was, on its own, a problem. But -- combined and misrepresented -- they made the Bush administration look all that much worse.

We are about to enter a new presidential campaign season and the rhetoric will start to fly from every direction. As we enter that season, it's incumbent upon our politicians to think before spouting. Intensity in headlines is one thing, but care must be taken.

As we've seen over this horrible weekend, there are unhinged individuals in America and with the extended reach the Internet provides, it's important our politicians mind what they say, think about how it might be interpreted, and turn down the rhetoric so there's no chance you might be interpreted as saying, "Go shoot this person."

There's a new factor that we're all just getting used to, and that's the social networking component. We have high-powered rhetoric and a new way to instantly reach hundreds of millions of citizens in the blink of an eye, without any filtering whatsoever between the politician and the citizenry.

This is unique. In the past, for a politician to reach millions, his or her message had to pass through gatekeepers, usually network news operators, or even their own political team. Nothing made it to that many people without being seen first by some level of editorial review.

Now, with Facebook and Twitter, that's not the case. A single posting to a Facebook page can be seen instantly, without review by anyone.

This is why it's so important for our politicians, bloggers, media personalities, and frankly every, single American to think before you post. Strong words, ambient anger, instant communications, and wackos with guns are a potent and dangerous combination.

Gun control

The other theme coming out of this weekend's shooting is a renewed call for gun control. I admire and respect my CNN colleague David Gergen, and while I agree with most of his commentary, No time for finger-pointing, I disagree with his premise that gun control should be put back on the legislative table.

There is no doubt guns are dangerous. But gun freedoms are central to the DNA of America, as stated in the Second Amendment:

A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the People to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.

Gun control is also impractical. While gun control might limit reasonable people from gaining access to weapons -- and would undoubtedly reduce the number of accidental firings -- gun control will never prevent dedicated crackpots or criminals from gaining access to weapons.

Gun control, therefore, is not the answer.

What can we do?

So what can we do? How can we prevent more events like this shooting? How can we protect ourselves?

The answer is actually bizarrely simple: be civil to each other. Sure, we disagree. You can't have 300 million people in a free and open society without disagreement. You can't even have three people in a coffee shop without disagreement.

We can be civil to each other. Our leaders, our media, and our bloggers can ratchet down the tone of the hate-speak. We can discuss the issues, debate the points. What we've seen over the last few years, in part to blast through the noise of all the voices, is an increase in inciting anger for anger's sake. This we must tone down.

I call on our politicians, our mainstream media, our commentators, our bloggers, and even all of us talking in coffee shops. Ratchet it down. Debate the issues. And be careful and thoughtful about what you say.

Finally, my best wishes and condolences go out to the families of all the victims.

TalkBack below, but let's be respectful, okay? This is a tough subject and it deserves consideration, but let's keep our anger level down as well. Be civil and it'll be a fascinating and important discussion.

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