Political speech doesn't kill people, people kill people
When a significant portion of the commentariat decided in early January that enough hyperbolic, martially themed political rhetoric was enough, that it was time for journalists to purge words like "battleground" from their election reporting and certainly long past time for the Republican Party to erase such eliminationist modifiers as "job-killing" to describe Democratic legislation like Obamacare, not a single member of the newly cautious caucus pointed a cautionary finger at Chris Hedges.
Chris Hedges, if you haven't heard of him, is a Pulitzer-winning New York Times war correspondent turned apocalyptic essayist for the lefty website Truthdig.com. He is someone who, after Greek protesters burned banks and murdered innocents in 2010, wrote: "Here's to the Greeks. They know what to do when corporations pillage and loot their country." Around that same time he wrote a piece titled "This Country Needs a Few Good Communists." And as many commie nostalgics tend to do, Hedges has repeatedly claimed that the modern U.S. is comparable to Hitler's Germany.
Jared Loughner's murderous rampage in Tucson, Arizona, which killed six, wounded 13 others, and prompted a national re-think of violence-tinged alarmism, did nothing to dull Hedges' tongue. Days after the massacre, he wrote that "Corporate systems of power are instruments of death that can be fought only by physical acts of resistance."
And yet the only mention of Hedges I could find in the lengthy discussion of post-Loughner political rhetoric came from Hartford Courant columnist Susan Campbell, who paraphrased him arguing that "the left's dedication to tolerance makes it ineffective in the face of intolerance." Intolerance in the face of intolerance is no vice.
I bring up Hedges not because I think that his words incite violence, but because I am convinced they do not. And I am just as convinced that most of the people calling for a "new tone," for a rhetorical disarmament in the discussion of politics, are motivated not by an equal opportunity antipathy to non-empirical hyperbole, but by a partisan revulsion at excess from the side whose beliefs they happen to find distasteful.
If "death" and its variants truly were the new verboten in political discourse, as the New York Times editorial page and countless commentators suggested in response to the GOP's post-Loughner "Repealing the Job-Killing Health Care Law Act," then Hedges, whose new book is titled The Death of the Liberal Class, would no longer be welcome at the adults' table. And yet there he was on National Public Radio, giving the disaffected-progressive response to President Barack Obama's State of the Union address, arguing that Communists were "partly" right in their economic analysis, and categorizing any Democratic tack toward the political center as "capitulation." For Hedges, politics is a question of life, death, and war. And on that score, at least, he is right.
If you read one piece in our package about the political class' truly bizarre (if distressingly predictable) reaction to the Loughner massacre, make it Senior Editor Radley Balko's piece about "The Deadliest Rhetoric." There Balko makes the always timely and almost always ignored point that the government's use of "war" rhetoric, particularly in the horrendous four-decade war on drugs, has, in concert with the militarization of local police departments, led directly to the outright murder of scores of innocent people. Violent rhetoric begat wretched laws whose enforcement killed the very Americans who were allegedly being protected. It is a status quo that should shock the conscience of every citizen.
Chris Hedges, on the other hand, has no armies or SWAT teams. He may express admiration for bank-burning Greeks and totalitarian-apologist Marxists, but even if we were to discover, for instance, that the thugs who broke the leg of Republican operative Allee Bautsch outside a GOP fundraiser in New Orleans last year had tattooed the contents of Hedges' latest screed just before their stomping spree, Hedges should still be off the hook. The reason is as simple as the old playground rhyme: Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.
We may never unravel the crazy-quilt motivations and influences rattling around Jared Loughner's very troubled head. (For a more sophisticated attempt than most, try Managing Editor Jesse Walker's "Unpacking Jared Lee Loughner.") But the blame is nevertheless straightforward: It falls on the man who pulled the trigger. Whoever attacked Bautsch (in a crime that you would have heard about long before this column had the noisy protest outside the Louisiana fundraiser been held by Tea Party activists rather than scruffy left-anarchist types) is ultimately responsible for whoever attacked Bautsch.
As with the monstrous events of September 11, millions of human minds reacted to the unspeakable act in Tucson by lunging desperately for an explanation, any explanation, that may hint at somehow preventing the next murderous outburst. (For a list of some particularly inane examples, check out Senior Editor Katherine Mangu-Ward's "From Reefer Madness to the Hays Code.") Sadly, this tendency is even more pronounced among Americans who live and breathe the zero-sum dead zone of major-party politics. For those of us who consume and participate a little too much in instantaneous social-network projects like Twitter (follow us at twitter.com/reasonmag!), watching the reaction to the Tucson massacre unfold live in the hours and days following the shooting was a scarring experience, kind of like witnessing a loved one soil himself after too much drink. The initial suspects of malign influence overwhelmingly leaned right, toward Sarah Palin, the Tea Parties, anti-immigration activists, Glenn Beck, Ron Paul–style critics of the Federal Reserve. As time revealed a more complicated picture, wound-licking conservatives pounced right back by blaming everything from Bush-hating 9/11 Trutherism to an experimental high school education project allegedly funded in part by Democrat financier and all-purpose bogeyman George Soros. As reason.com and reason.tv Editor in Chief Nick Gillespie writes in "The Politicization of Everything," far too often "Both left and right embrace a totalist mentality that says the most important aspect of everything is whether it helps or hurts your party of choice." The reflex, in every sense of the word, is repulsive.
This will not be the last time political violence will be perpetrated or attempted during Obama's presidency (or those of his successors), so the pattern is worth committing to memory. Terrible deed prompts premature finger-pointing. (Extra credit in this case goes to the unmissed former Sen. Bob Kerrey for pre-emptively assuming that Loughner wanted to repeal ObamaCare.) Partisans immediately blame their mirror images on the other side of the aisle, and endless oxygen is expended debating an undefinable "climate" of violence allegedly created by political expression.
There is a happy ending to this grim business, and not just Rep. Gabrielle Giffords' miraculous recovery from a bullet to her brain. Politicians and pundits may be panicking, but the American people have largely kept their heads—much as they did in the days and months after September 11, though few gave them credit at the time. Polls showed solid majorities rejecting any link between political rhetoric and Loughner's violence. Calls to enact ill-advised legislation have mostly (though not totally) stalled out. Not only is Chris Hedges still free to make hyperbolic comparisons to Hitler's Germany, so are his analogues on the anti-Obama right. We should welcome the opportunity to refute them on their merits, instead of seeking to banish them from the great American debate.
Matt Welch is editor in chief of reason.