One of the many misguided reactions to automatically spring from Saturday’s shooting tragedy in Arizona — where six people were killed and Democratic Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was horribly wounded — belongs to Rep. Bob Brady of Pennsylvania, whose first move was to grab some spotlight for himself by proposing a dumb law. Brady wants to make it a federal crime “to threaten or incite violence against a member of Congress or a federal official,” pointing toward Sarah Palin’s much-discussed “crosshairs” map (pictured), which targeted Giffords’ district in the 2010 midterm elections. Yes, violent rhetoric can be dangerous, and more often disgusting, but Brady is being selfish, alarmist and anti-democratic.
Brady told the New York Times that, “You can’t threaten the president with a bullseye or a crosshair.” He continued: “This is not a wakeup call. This is a major alarm going off. We need to be more civil with each other. We need to tone down this rhetoric.”
Indeed, but not with laws that limit free speech. That’s not the answer.
Jack Shafer, writing in Slate, comes out in support of “inflamed rhetoric”:
For as long as I’ve been alive, crosshairs and bull’s-eyes have been an accepted part of the graphical lexicon when it comes to political debates. Such “inflammatory” words as targeting, attacking, destroying, blasting, crushing, burying, knee-capping, and others have similarly guided political thought and action. Not once have the use of these images or words tempted me or anybody else I know to kill. I’ve listened to, read–and even written!–vicious attacks on government without reaching for my gun. I’ve even gotten angry, for goodness’ sake, without coming close to assassinating a politician or a judge.
Shafer argues that American political culture is “almost devoid of genuine violence outside of a few scuffles and busted lips now and again,” and that only crazy outliers take the leap from words to actions when it comes to violence. But that doesn’t mean Sarah Palin hasn’t acted irresponsibly. In fact, her people have also lied.
Speaking with radio host Tammy Bruce, Palin’s aide Rebecca Mansour said that the crosshairs on the map were merely “a surveyor’s symbol” like “you see on maps.” This, of course, in direct opposition to Palin’s tweets on the matter, urging her followers to “don’t retreat, instead – RELOAD!” Later, she wrote, “remember months ago ‘bullseye’ icon used 2 target the 20 Obamacare-lovin’ incumbent seats?”
Everyone knows those crosshairs were meant to be guns, Mansour included, despite her flimsy spin. But as Slate’s Dave Weigel writes, it’s accepted that “while political pundits and consultants might use war and gun metaphors to talk about politics, politicians stay away from them.” It’s a matter of respect, of decency and of recognizing your influence — not because every follower is a potential psychopath, but because one might be. But the answer isn’t anti-speech laws, it’s common sense.