Like most people, I was shocked at the shooting spree in Tuscon that killed six people and wounded many others, including Representative Gabrielle Giffords. I pray for the families of those so brutally murdered and for the recovery of Rep. Giffords and the other people wounded. The shooter, Jared Lee Loughner, is clearly mentally ill; it is almost impossible to predict the behavior of someone so deeply disturbed, and we will probably never know what pushed him over the edge into violence and murder. There has been a great deal of concern expressed that extremes of political rhetoric may have led to this tragedy. This claim goes beyond the evidence, but political debate should be conducted in a rational matter using good arguments rather than ad hominem attacks. Both the right and the left have been guilty in this regard. However, I am not sure that in issues involving politics or religion that debate will ever be conducted without some people making personal attacks. Politics deals with the nature of government and what makes up a good society, something that affects us all. Religion deals with one’s overall view of the world. For many people, religion and politics are part of their very identity, and they feel threatened when their religious and/or political views are attacked. In addition, many people in society have been infected with the postmodern disease of not believing that reason can resolve political issues (and by “reason” I primarily mean “practical reason” in Aristotle’s sense). Distrust of reason only leaves room for emotion–and while emotion is necessary for our survival and is probably necessary for good cognition (as the work of Damasio suggests), emotion tends to go to extremes without the balance of reason. Without reason, all that remains in politics is emotional attacks that quickly degenerate into personal attacks and even into violence. Such a view ends up leading to “might makes right.” That is sophism of the kind Thrasymachus accepted as Plato portrays him in The Republic. Thrasymachus wished to attack people personally, even threatening them physically, to push forward his views. The kind of violence seen in the earlier attacks on Rep. Giffords’ office, or the vandalism of the Rutherford County, Tennessee Republican Party Headquarters (twice) is the result of such an ethic.
Concern about political rhetoric should not be used as an excuse to limit freedom of speech or to cut off debate on controversial issues. Even nasty political rhetoric, as long as it does not involve slander or libel or physical threats, is protected speech. Political debate today is nasty, but is nowhere near as nasty as it was in the nineteenth century. Yes, we should be more civil in political debate. But even those who are uncivil have the right to be uncivil. The terrible tragedy in Arizona should not obscure this fact. Sadly, the sheriff in Tuscon and many in the media have tried to politicize this tragedy or blame specific people or movements for the crime. This is the very kind of political rhetoric that is unhealthy. Ultimately, there is only one person who is guilty of the murders and assaults in Tuscon, and that is Jared Lee Loughner.