Thursday, January 13, 2011

Rhetorically Speaking

Recently, the world was (I hope) shocked and terrified when a very sick, very twisted, very disturbed young man opened fire on a street corner in Tucson, Arizona killing 6 people and seriously wounding another 14, including his apparent target, Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords.

No sooner was the shooting over, than ammunition was fired from both the right and the left, Republicans and Democrats over responsibility for the tragedy.

Many people put it squarely on the shoulders of former Republican Vice Presidential candidate (and future Presidential hopeful) Sarah Palin.

A few months ago, her political action committee SarahPac, “targeted” several congressional districts whose representatives had voted in favor of President Obama’s Health Care Bill. The graphic used in the ad was that of a “crosshairs” placed over each of the districts in question. Since Congresswoman Giffords’ district was one of those “targeted” by the campaign, within minutes of the shooting last Saturday, the accusations began flying fast and furious blaming Palin’s ad for the tragedy.

Of course, never mind the fact that while many folks were drawing the direct connections between the "Crosshairs" ad campaign and the shooting, the police who had the shooter in custody were repeating that they had not determined a motive for what was done. In short, there was no evidence that he was acting as a result of being influenced by the campaign at all, or if he was just a random nutcase who went “postal”.

Over the past week, it has come out that the suspect, Jared Loughner, has had a history of alcohol and drug abuse, mental instability, and has expressed admiration for Hitler’s famous anti-Semitic book, Mein Kampf. He attended a campaign event for Congresswoman Giffords in 2007, and asked her a question, and was very unsatisfied with her answer. There are signs that even then he was planning, or at the very least imagining/fantasizing killing her.

So it seems to be a real stretch to put this one on Sarah Palin.

Don’t get me wrong – I personally find Sarah Palin to be one of the biggest jokes, yet most terrifying personalities to appear on the American political scene in a very long time. The entire 2008 Presidential campaign was highlighted by her repeated shows of ignorance and cluelessness.

But that’s a far cry from pinning the responsibility of last weekend’s tragedy on her.

That being said, I believe there is a lot to think about in terms of the atmosphere rhetoric such as SarahPac helps create. More importantly, there is a lot that she herself can be doing to tone the rhetoric down, and to try be a constructive player in the field of bringing political discourse back into the realm of acceptable, even positive behavior.

I was here in Israel in 1995 – when Yitzchak Rabin was assassinated. Then, as last week in Tucson, the responsibility for the shooting was completely on the head of a very sick, twisted individual who committed a horrendous disgusting act. But to pretend that he acted completely in a vacuum would be less than honest.

The atmosphere here in 1994-95 was one of violent rhetoric – complete with posters and flyers depicting Rabin wearing a kheffiyah (Arab headdress) and some of Rabin seen through the crosshairs of a rifle.

Rabin himself contributed greatly to the atmosphere at the time with his own rhetoric, and his complete unwillingness (or perhaps even inability) to recognize the validity of any views other than his own. His complete disregard and disrespect for anyone and everyone – even within his own party – who dared to disagree with him was an absolute low-point in the history of the Israeli government.

This is not meant in any way whatsoever to “blame the victim” – Yigal Amir made a conscious decision to take the life of the Prime Minister and he bears full responsibility for his actions.

But it is meant to emphasize that Israeli society had deteriorated to the point where a murder such as this one was not only possible, it was almost inevitable.

Both sides of the Israeli political forum were so convinced that their views and of their cause were absolutely and completely “right”, and equally convinced in the invalidity of the other side, that there was no semblance of respect or even debate in the world of Israeli politics at the time.

There were religious leaders on the right calling for rabbinical rulings which would justify killing Rabin in the name of “saving Jewish lives and the Jewish State”, there were leaders on the left (including Prime Minister Rabin himself) who continually added fuel to the fire with name calling, as well as the complete invalidation of the views of the right as well as those who held those views.

The result was such a division in Israeli society, such a polarization, that as horrifying as the Rabin assassination was, I didn’t find it at all surprising.

This still happens here today. People on either side of the political spectrum are so sure that they have the only valid understanding of the political intricacies here, that they refuse to even acknowledge the possibility that other views have validity. There is almost no healthy and respectful discourse here, and I fear that it is only a matter of time before we see a repeat of the national tragedy which altered the course of Israeli history in 1995.

I see the same thing happening in America, and all of what’s been flying both in the period leading up to last week’s shooting as well is reminding very much of Israel in the time before and after the Rabin assassination.

The tone – on both sides of the spectrum seem the same. The imagery being used is very much the same. The closed attitudes to opposing views is downright frightening.

Of course, Sarah Palin didn’t help matters at all this week when she referred to the associations of the shooting to her ad campaign as a “blood libel”.

I would love to give Mrs. Palin the benefit of the doubt that she doesn’t really understand what a blood libel is doesn’t know the historical context of the expression - she has certainly shown us time and again that her ignorance knows no bounds. But whether in ignorance or by design, rhetoric of that nature serves only to bring the level of vitriol and paranoia to new lows. And even if we accept that last week’s shooting was not connected to the atmosphere of anger and hatred that now exists, the next tragedy may very well be a direct result of it.

Now is the time for the rhetoric to stop – on both ends of the spectrum.

And I don’t mean only the politicians, TV and Radio pundits and anyone with a microphone.

I mean everybody. I see the rhetoric on Facebook, hear it in the streets. Even worse than creating the atmosphere in which murder for political views can happen, this atmosphere allows others to accept, even justify those murders.

And that needs to stop long before it’s too late.

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