Elizabeth Markovits on Rep. Giffords Shooting

Questioning Authority talked with Assistant Professor of Politics Elizabeth Markovits, whose research specialties include contemporary political thought and rhetoric, about the recent Arizona shooting in which U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was critically wounded.

QA: As a political scholar, what was your initial reaction upon hearing the news of the Gifford assassination attempt?

EM: When I heard a Congressional Representative had been targeted, I felt shock at the possibility that there could be a political assassination in this country in 2011. But then I  thought back to some of the uglier political rallies we saw during the last election cycle and, like a lot of people, I became worried they might be connected.

QA: That leads me to my next question, which has to do with the politicizing of the shooting—and in particular, criticizing the Tea Party, Sarah Palin, and conservative talk radio hosts for creating the environment that sparked this tragedy. Do you feel that blame is warranted?

EM: First, it’s worth mentioning that the shooting of a Congressperson is always political. It doesn’t appear that Mr. Loughner just randomly went out and shot people. He meant for it to be political. It doesn’t seem to fit our usual categories of liberal versus conservative, but that doesn’t mean it’s not political.

The tone of political debate in this country has been of concern to many people, including me. It didn't start with the Tea Party or the last election cycle. During George W. Bush's presidency, some people on the Left talked about how "evil" he was, for example. After Obama came to power and the Tea Party movement picked up steam, this sort of political hate seemed to spiral. Just think of Rep. John Lewis, a veteran of the civil rights movement, getting spat upon and called "n---er" or Rep. Barney Frank getting called a "f---t," or the bricks that got thrown through Congresspeople's windows after the health care vote.

It’s as if, when we disagree, it must be because you are evil or immoral or stupid--not because decent people can disagree. In such a hyper-personalized environment, it's easier for opponents to vilify one another, which is a first step in contemplating real violence.

Compounding this was the fact that many Tea Party enthusiasts are also gun enthusiasts, making that part of their everyday rhetoric. Sarah Palin's infamous crosshairs map was like this--it made metaphorical sense to her and many of her supporters. But to those who don't own or approve of owning guns, any reference to such symbols seems inherently violent, an indication of irresponsibility.

Of course, all this does not mean that what happened in Tucson was the result of these factors. But that also doesn't mean that the rhetorical environment does not pose a serious problem for the health of our democracy anyway. I think calling people out for their rhetoric is fine. To think they caused what happened in Tucson is a little like blaming a metal band for teenage suicide or rap music for drug dealing. On the other hand, do I hope my child listens to a lot of music that glorifies drug dealing or violence? Not really.

QA: Let’s turn this around and talk about the "blamers"--when a CBS news poll shows that the majority of Americans don't believe political rhetoric was a cause of the shooting, what does that say about the media in creating a reaction story that there may not actually have been evidence to support?

EM: First, just because the majority of Americans in a CBS poll don't believe something, doesn't mean it's not true. How many people think Barack Obama was born in Kenya? And people change their minds--people strongly supported the Iraq War when it began and then changed their minds. That's normal and healthy--but it should also give us pause when dealing with polls.

After reading this question, I went back through the New York Times coverage of the story to check out a mainstream media example. What I read is fairly solid reporting. A Democratic representative in gunned down at an open forum in Arizona. The articles go on to mention how many threats Rep. Giffords had received and to discuss the environment in Arizona, which the Tucson Sheriff had lamented at a news conference following the shooting. As time passed, more and more information about the threats against Rep. Giffords came out, including her own criticisms of Palin's crosshairs map. I don't think people made the connection because of the media force-fed it to them--they made it because the coincidence is pretty striking at first glance. Now it may turn out to be only a coincidence and we should be careful about drawing conclusions. But it is the media's job to frame things and put them in context. To ignore the very tense political context during the last election would also be irresponsible and bad journalism. How could you cover the attempted murder of Rep. Giffords and not mention the earlier threats and violence against her and her office? This is, after all, a woman who had gone on national television to say that she was concerned about having crosshairs placed over her district.

Now bloggers and commentators and even some elected representatives--who I wouldn’t necessarily consider part of the "mainstream media”--made the connection to Palin and Tea Party rhetoric much more explicitly. Some did it in a more thoughtful way than others, talking about the danger of a vitriolic rhetoric environment and how that might in some ways contribute to violence (more minor incidences of which have already happened--like the office vandalism). Those who did it less responsibly--blaming the Tea Party or Sarah Palin directly for the shootings--have been rightly called out for it. But I don't think you can say that mainstream news media did much more than lay out the context surrounding the shootings.

QA: What were your thoughts on President Obama's memorial service speech in terms of setting (or perhaps readjusting) the temperature for the political conversation regarding the shooting? Do you think Americans needed the president to tell them to stop the finger pointing and come together in the wake of the tragedy?

EM: I think Obama demonstrated again what an impressive public speaker he is. His speech was moving and inspiring. After a tragedy, people need that. Unfortunately, I fear that people who don't like him just don't hear him, much as George W. Bush couldn't really get anyone who already didn't like him to listen to him either.

QA: Does this tragic incident alter the political environment in America going forward, or will its impact be diluted, if not forgotten, come next week's headlines?

EM: I think people will be much more cautious about their tone going forward and that could have good effects. Whether or not rhetoric contributed in any way to the events in Tucson, I think people have been shaken up by it. However, it would be a shame if calls for civility led people away from disagreement--sometimes such a call can pressure people to ignore important issues in the interest of keeping the peace. Regardless, I hope that we see an end to threats of violence against members of Congress. Wow--that seems like such a fundamental baseline for democratic politics that I can’t believe I had to say that. 

I also think this could be the end of Sarah Palin’s time in the limelight. When I was reminded of the crosshairs map and realized Rep. Giffords was on it, I was pretty shocked and thought it would be bad news for Palin--so did Palin, which is why they scrubbed her website of the map. As more details came out about Mr. Loughner, things seemed not so serious. I think it's safe to say that she blew it with the video statement she posted on Facebook, which was all about her and her status as a victim, coupled with an unfortunate use of the term "blood libel." Sarah Palin, as Bush speechwriter David Frum pointed out, is very good at being a victim. All of a sudden, the story is about the liberal media and how unfair they are to her, instead of about the shooting. I find it really depressing.