The power of words

The power of words

Only one person really understands the motives behind the obscene shooting that killed six people and wounded 17 others, including U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.), and that is the shooter himself. That, however, hasn’t prevented an army of pundits, bloggers, and water-cooler windbags from declaiming with unearned self-assurance what motivated the attack: Right-wing propaganda. Talk-radio paranoia. Anti-Semitic brainwashing. In the rush to control the message of a national tragedy, opinion-makers do away with such distractions as the truth.

(About the only credible thing that could have been said about the causes of the attack, at least within the first 24 hours, concerned the means, not the motive. As long as this country allows such easy access to firearms expressly designed as personal assault weapons, we have agreed as a society that the occasional massacre is the price we are willing to pay in defense of the Right to Bear Arms.)

No, it is so far impossible to determine who is to blame for Jared Loughner’s madness, other than Jared Loughner and whatever demons dwell inside him. But even if vicious public discourse didn’t directly inspire him, that doesn’t exonerate its sources. Words have meaning, and those who exploit their listeners’ fears, tap into old wells of ethnic or class resentment, or demonize opponents as traitors or heretics should be held to account. Vicious political rhetoric is wrong not only because it may lead to vicious political acts (although it could). It is wrong because it cheapens public discourse and poisons our political process.

Matt Bai, writing about the shooting for The New York Times, had it about right in describing the political and media figures who, for example, compare their political opponents to America’s historical enemies. “It’s not that such leaders are necessarily trying to incite violence or hysteria; in fact, they’re not,” writes Bai. “It’s more that they are so caught up in a culture of hyperbole, so amused with their own verbal flourishes and the ensuing applause, that — like the bloggers and TV hosts to which they cater — they seem to lose their hold on the power of words.”

Political partisans must find a way to curb this culture of hyperbole. It shouldn’t take a horrific act of violence to remind them.

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