Politics & Policy

This Is Not War

A voluntary rhetorical cold shower.

As after any violent attack, there is great temptation to posture politically, from both sides and even among law enforcement. It is wrong. Not every moment is political, and those who rush where angels fear to tread are fools. We could begin to list the statements, but now is not a time for that. Evil does and always will exist. As will madmen who succumb to it. And those looking to cast blame in the wake of the Tucson shooting ought to stop pointing fingers at Sarah Palin, Arizona’s illegal-immigration laws, or anyone or anything else. The cause of violence in Tucson looks, right now, to simply be the dark and confused mind of a man who is a declared fan of Mein Kampf and The Communist Manifesto, who railed against our currency and the unconstitutionality of his community college, and was troubled enough to think violence was the only way to make his points — however indiscernible they are.

That said, the posturing for the foreseeable future is going to be about rhetoric, just as it was after the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City — and while the allegations that rhetoric caused the shooting are false, this is an appropriate moment to consider our words and imagery just the same. Perhaps our rhetoric can improve. There is a difference between an enemy and an opponent, no matter how wrongheaded an opponent. Thomas Jefferson put it this way: “Every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle. We have called by different names brethren of the same principle. We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists.” Abraham Lincoln this way: “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection.”

The horror of Tucson can reinspire those notions. It hurts no one and deprives no one of their First Amendment rights to suggest we all tone down some of the “hanging party” and “targeting” and “crosshairs” talk and imagery even where it is not at fault, even where — or especially where — that talk has been the province of both sides.

Let’s be clear, again: Tough talk and imagery are not at fault here. Has anyone yet uncovered any nexus between the rantings of the Tucson shooter and the rhetoric and imagery that has been blamed? And even if they were to: The truth is we talk tough daily on, yes, Fox News, and MSNBC, too. And as Howard Kurtz points out, even journalists are quite at home using war imagery in writing about politics and policies. Tough, harsh talk and war imagery tends to be just that — talk and imagery. Justified or deranged, it is passionate political rhetoric, some examples of it better than others, all of it charged.

Our thoughts just now are not about recriminations, but about rethinking some of our words and considering voluntarily swearing off some of them whenever feasible. Such rhetoric will always be with us; words like “campaign” and “battleground,” waging “war” on poverty or various cancers, and even “truce” are as much a part of our politics as the Constitution. But too much beyond that, and the reality is that our words and imagery can become a turn-off and a distraction. And they can all too easily lead to just the kinds of absurd and distracting recriminations we have witnessed this past weekend.

This is not a call for a dilution of principle or opinions but for a better engagement with one another. Just because some of those who are talking about cooling down the rhetoric are also casting blame where it doesn’t belong does not mean we can’t do and be better. We always can. We know we can.

We’ll soon learn much more about Saturday’s shooter. Beyond prosecutorial necessity and insights into early-warning signs, we ought to forget his name as quickly as most of us have forgotten the name of the Virginia Tech shooter. And we would be wise to remember instead the heroes and innocents of the day, whether on their way from daily Mass, learning about democracy at a young age, or simply participating in our democracy and engaging with its brave representatives. And we ought to combat the evil and derivative nonsense with as much goodness as we can stand.

Decency from all and to all should be our calling cards — both in our politics and in our analysis of these events. That might not have been the overwhelming reality for some of our media venues this weekend, but maybe we can begin again right now. To quote Lincoln again: We must not be enemies. That begins with how we talk to and about one another.

— Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online and a nationally syndicated columnist. Seth Leibsohn is a fellow of the Claremont Institute and a principal with the consulting firm Leibsohn & Associates.

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