Lost in the furor over the recent shootings in Arizona is the fact that America has a fairly bland political culture that discourages harsh criticism of political leaders: bland by both historical and international standards. My French relatives regularly denounce their country’s leaders in far more heated and pungent terms than Americans like Sarah Palin do. Founding fathers like Thomas Jefferson and John Adams were attacked far more vitriolically in the media than recent presidents like Obama and Bush were, as Reason Magazine points out here and here. Recent attempts to blame the shootings in Arizona on the political climate are ignorant of both America’s own history and the world beyond America’s borders.
As reporter Robert Barnes notes today in the Washington Post, there is "no evidence that the suspect in Saturday's shootings that left six dead and Giffords and 13 others wounded was influenced by inflammatory political rhetoric, or that any voices that motivated him were outside his own head." But Congressman Bob Brady (D-Pa.) has just introduced a bill to "shut" harsh rhetoric aimed at politicians "down." And the liberal establishment, speaking through the editorial board of the New York Times, recently called on Arizona to "quiet" the harsh "voices" who allegedly promote "division" by criticizing liberal constituencies like illegal immigrants, "welfare recipients," and "bureaucrats." The Times insinuated that "opponents of health care reform" had helped create a political climate that led to the shootings.
Chilling sharp criticism of political leaders is a bad idea. It will make it even harder to get entrenched politicians to address problems like America’s skyrocketing budget deficit, which has mushroomed as result of feel-good “bipartisan” policies like the recent deal between Obama and Congressional leaders (which will add $900 billion to the national debt to perpetuate welfare-expansions in the failed stimulus package, and tax-cuts that the country can’t afford), the Iraq War, the failed $150 billion Bush-Pelosi-Reid stimulus rebates, and the costly No-Child-Left-Behind Law backed by Ted Kennedy and George Bush (Bush increased education spending by 58% even as wasteful education spending exploded).
Chilling criticism of Obamacare is also a bad idea, given that even liberal commentators admit that it is a “disaster” that has not lived up to its promises, and given how it has increased state budget deficits, healthcare costs, and red-tape. And it has been criticized by law professors as violating Constitutional limits on Congress’s power under the Commerce Clause and Spending Clause.
The intellectual climate is already so stiflingly conformist in liberal circles that it is considered a faux pas or even racist to criticize Obama at some Washington area dinner parties, no matter how factually-based the criticism. The closing of the liberal mind is manifested in books like “I can’t believe I’m sitting next to a Republican.” (Vitriolic and violent rhetoric from the left in recent years has made any controversy over Sarah Palin look like a tempest in a teapot: Palin’s use of martial metaphors in campaign rhetoric was completely commonplace and unobjectionable, as Slate’s Jack Shafer and others have noted, and the word "campaign" is itself of martial origin.).
Making politics blander will not do anything to prevent future shootings. People who threaten to kill government officials are seldom influenced by the tone of political rhetoric. I was once a law clerk for a federal judge (a moderate Republican much like John Roll, the widely-respected federal judge who was slain in Arizona). My judge had received many death threats over the years (and his family later received death threats after his funeral). Accordingly we, his law clerks, were vigilant to make sure that six people who had threatened the judge not be allowed into his chambers. But none of these death threats were tied to politics, much less to heated political rhetoric or Talk Radio.
Most of the judges in this country who are slain are killed by people unhappy over outcomes in non-publicized cases, like divorce cases, or child-custody disputes, or run-of-the-mill criminal cases. Political rhetoric plays no role in their death whatsoever. Similarly, would-be assassins like President’s Reagan’s assailant, John Hinckley, often have bizarre motives completely unrelated to politics.
On the other hand, silencing dissenters will prevent them from harmlessly letting off steam and thus increase the likelihood that a few of them will resort to violence. As Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, who was once venerated by liberals, observed in Whitney v. California, “repression breeds hate,” and “hate menaces stable government”; “the path of safety lies in the opportunity to discuss freely supposed grievances and proposed remedies.”