Arizona shooting reverberates in Congress. Can it change the culture?

In the halls of Congress, the Arizona shooting has prompted calls to tone down violent rhetoric. But it will take more than reformed lawmakers to change politics' tough-talking culture.

Jonathan Ernst/Reuters
The US Capitol dome is shown in the background as flags fly at half staff in honor of the victims of the shooting in Arizona that injured US Representative Gabrielle Giffords (D) of Arizona at the Washington Monument in Washington on Jan. 9.

Saturday’s mass shooting in Tucson, Ariz., reset the political clock on Capitol Hill Monday, as Congress swept aside the legislative agenda out of respect for those killed or injured, including Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D) of Arizona and her aide, Gabriel Zimmerman.

The motive for the mass shooting in Tucson is not clear, but that hasn’t stopped speculation about what is to blame or how tragedy can be averted in the future.

The most frequent comment on Capitol Hill – short of ubiquitous calls to exercise prudence – is to tone down the toxic rhetoric, especially gun-infused metaphors.

But critics acknowledge that it will take more than just members of Congress altering their tough-talking ways to change the overall culture. Political consultants, fundraisers, the news media are all also addicted to tough talk – and for the same reason, it sells.

“This is a deep cultural style of political expression that has developed over 30 years, and it’s not going to be changed overnight,” says former House historian Raymond Smock, who led a staff discussion Monday on the issue at the Robert C. Byrd Center for Legislative Studies.

“Politics has always been based on fear … keeping people mad, keeping people on the ragged edge,” he adds. “Every once in a while we get sensitized again, but it’s hard to change.”

Rep. Robert Brady (D) of Pennsylvania wants to get the courts involved by expanding the existing ban on threats to top political leaders. His draft bill, which was prompted by Saturday's shootings, provides that all those things you can’t say about a president or vice president – such as statements or symbols expressing intent to kill or injure – you also should not be able to say about other federal officials, including members of Congress.

That means no putting members' faces in a bull’s eye or cross hairs. After the Arizona shootings, Sarah Palin’s PAC website removed a map that put cross hairs on districts around the country where political opponents were targeted for defeat. Palin spokeswoman Rebecca Mansour called the targets on the site “surveying symbols.”

The trouble is, Representative Brady notes, all that fear and hate-infused speech gets the public’s attention. Negative ads can push a candidate over the top – or sink them.

“Unfortunately, it’s good politics in this day and age,” Brady said via a spokesman Monday. “It’s hard to end practices that work at the ballot box.”

Journalists, too, are caught up in the “showdown,” “targeting,” “taking aim” rhetoric now deemed offensive. The National Journal cover story for Jan. 8 features the subhead: “John Boehner’s troops are spoiling for a fight, but the speaker wants to aim before he shoots.”

The Rev. Rob Schenk, president of Faith and Action in the Nation’s Capital, says that fundraisers, too, share responsibility for a pernicious political culture. “The typical fundraising letter says that if you don’t do this, they will take over, as in your grandchildren will be taught by homosexuals in their classroom,” he says.

“This kind of hyperbolic, alarmist, incendiary language is driven by the numbers,” he adds. “The fundraisers know if they can induce fear and anger, those are the two most effective motivators for people to go out of their way and cut a check.”

“I must admit a certain guilt myself, because up until very recently I cooperated with this type of fundraising and now I’m beginning to see how damaging it was to people,” he says.

Just three days into the investigation of the Tucson shooting, it’s not clear what motivated the suspected shooter, Jared Lee Loughner. His favorite books, as noted on his YouTube profile page, range from “Mein Kampf” and “The Communist Manifesto” to “To Kill a Mockingbird,” “Aesop’s Fables,” and “Peter Pan.” Internet comments attributed to him are disoriented and rambling.

Prima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik repeated Monday his assertion that that the toxic climate of political speech may have been a factor in the shootings. “The vitriol affects the [unbalanced] personality that we are talking about,” he said. “You can say, ‘Oh no, it doesn’t,’ but my opinion is that it does.”

Mark Pitcavage, a historian with the Anti-Defamation League, urges caution in jumping to conclusions in this case. “There has been an increase in violent rhetoric, but it’s not clear this incident was a manifestation of that,” he says.

But he adds that toning down the rhetoric is a good thing and can reduce the incidence of future attacks. “If this gets people to catch their breath and make an attempt to get back to a more civil society, society can only benefit,” he says.

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