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A few days ago, Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords (D, AZ) was shot in the head at point-blank range by Jared Loughner. After shooting her, Loughner continued shooting, eventually killing half a dozen and wounding a dozen or so. When he stopped to reload, bystanders tackled him and he was arrested.

Notebooks and scribblings belonging to Loughner show first, that he is a disturbed young man, and second, that he was targeting Giffords. He referred to her by name and wrote of his assassination plans.

Did the violence-laden rhetoric of current political speech play a role in Loughner's actions? Many think so. In particular, Sara Palin's map of Democratic "targets" has been criticized; this map showed several Democrat-controlled districts in crosshairs, and Gabrielle Giffords was mentioned by name as a target. "Don't retreat, reload!", tweeted Palin. Other republicans spoke of "second-amendment remedies", and said "if ballots don't work, bullets will". Right-wing radio and TV pundits used equally explicit language as they exhorted their listeners to "take out" opposing political figures.

But then, in the tradition of a cover-up being worse than the original problem, Palin denied that the imagery was violent at all. The map symbols were not crosshairs, they were "surveyor's marks". Reloading was simply a metaphor for trying again. Palin went on the attack, claiming that accusations of any contributory blame in her direction were ludicrous and reprehensible, and constituted "blood libel" (sic). The only person to blame was the deranged individual who pulled the trigger. Anyone who suggested otherwise was trying to curb Palin's God-given (not to mention First Amendment-given) right to free speech, and probably hated America.

I joined several discussions of these events in various forums. Few seemed to actually get to what I feel is the core of the matter, so I decided to address it here.

I see the problem as one of judicious use of speech. Politicians and TV/radio pundits have a bully pulpit; people listen to them. They have influence. Those who have widespread influence have the right of free speech, but also have the responsibility to anticipate possible repercussions from that speech. The more prominent the public figure, the more responsibility.

Palin did not pull the trigger. A nutjob did. He is the guilty party. But could Palin and other media figures have reasonably anticipated that the use of violent imagery in their free speech might influence the unbalanced? That is the core of the accusations against Palin. Many feel that she should have known, and so shares part of the blame.

I'm no fan of Palin (to put it mildly), but I'm not quite willing to assign her blame for these killings. But I AM willing to say that her ill-advised words and metaphors have contributed to the atmosphere of violence currently surrounding political discourse. She should take responsibility for THAT, and tone down her rhetoric.

Perhaps Palin didn't realize that some people can't distinguish metaphor from exhortation. Perhaps she didn't realize that her words were influential (ha!). But now that the concept has been raised, she can no longer claim ignorance. She, and all public figures, have a responsibility to use their influence judiciously.

Henry II, in a drunken rage, yelled "Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?" and the result was the murder of Thomas Becket. Henry later wept for his friend, and claimed he had not intended his knights to commit murder. History nonetheless judges him as the guilty party.

Because, as a monarch, he should have known some toadies might act on his words. Because, as a monarch, he had a responsibility to speak judiciously, even when drunk.

It's been 840 years since then, and today it is not Kings and Barons who have influence and power, but rather media figures and politicians. But the principle remains. Noblesse oblige.


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August 2016

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