Silence Is Complicity and Defensiveness Is Endorsement

01/10/2011 01:06 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • David Sirota Newspaper columnist, radio host (AM760), bestselling author

I've just finished up three hours of the most difficult radio I've ever had to do. The topic, of course, was the horrific shooting in Tucson, which has deeply affected me, as it has many others. As someone who had to flee the Capitol on 9/11, was warned of anthrax contamination in the congressional office I was working in, and has faced various threats of violence during my media career, I was shaken by the scenes in Arizona more so than by any other news imagery in a long time.

The reason the radio show was so difficult this morning was because of the reaction. It was a telling commentary about the larger problems embodied by the weekend's events.

My points this morning were simple: We know that some conservative media and political leaders often use their platforms to endorse violence as political expression, and both those leaders and all of us in media and politics need to reflect on the inevitable real-world consequences of that reality. Indeed, if we cannot reflect on this after this weekend, when can we?

This should be a point of consensus among the left and right. Regardless of what crazy theories motivated the Tucson shooter, and regardless of how insane he obviously is, we know our culture is now regularly infused with the radical notion that says political motives -- whatever they are -- can be legitimately expressed with violence. We know this because the examples are everywhere - and because Rep. Gabrielle Giffords explicitly warned of the "consequences." And we should know that when you mix inevitably crazy people with notions that violence is acceptable politics, you are bound to get violence. This isn't esoteric sociological theory -- it's basic common sense.

For my part, I spent a lot of the morning sincerely apologizing, telling listeners that if I have ever even seemed to have contributed to violent rhetoric in the past, I am deeply sorry. I made this point over and over again, noting that when I was first offered the opportunity in radio two years ago, my primary hesitation in taking the job was about going into a business that seems so focused on invective. I knew then, as I know now, that our media -- and particularly our electronic media -- rewards such vitriol, much of it seeming to endorse violence. That knowledge haunts me every day, and so after this shooting, I apologized on my own behalf if I have ever accidentally contributed to it, while also providing some key indisputable examples of how that violent rhetoric is now everywhere -- and especially emanating these days from the fringe right.

While we received a lot of calls this morning that fundamentally agreed with the seemingly uncontroversial premise that our culture now regularly endorses violence, we also received a wave of hate mail from conservatives who insist it is out of line to even raise questions about that culture. Next to the terrible death and injury from the shooting, this effective demand for silence -- this insistence that questions must not be asked and that remorse must not be expressed -- is the most depressing part of the entire Tucson episode.

As we've learned so many times throughout history, silence is complicity and defensiveness is ideological endorsement. We are now learning that lesson today.

When, for instance, Sarah Palin responds to the shooting by scrubbing her website but not by apologizing for her violent imagery aimed at Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, that simultaneously says she knows she may be partially responsible for violent culture, but unwilling to state that publicly so as to change that culture.

When Arizona Tea Party leaders condemn the violence but then nonetheless make a show of publicly refusing to refrain from violent rhetoric, they are acknowledging the tragedy while suggesting they don't mind if future events like this happen.

When right-wing radio hosts follow a murderous rampage by pretending they -- and not the dead -- are the victim, they are by omission suggesting that they somehow have a god-given right to hijack the public airwaves and use them for explicitly violent incitement.

When a Republican senator admits to Politico that "there is a need for some reflection here" but then refuses to make that comment on the record, it says the GOP knows we have a problem but isn't serious about stopping it.

When Beltway reporters insist we shouldn't necessarily see a planned and targeted assassination attempt as political or terrorism and further, shouldn't ascribe blame to any political movements, they are sanitizing the episode as some freakish event we should all simply get used to.

And when conservative radio-show callers spend their energy berating questions about our violent culture rather than berating their own leaders for endorsing that culture, they are willfully avoiding inconvenient truths and effectively endorsing the new violent normal in America. Why? Because that normal serves conservative ends by expressly suggesting to anyone who is not a conservative (read: Democrats and progressives) that they should legitimately fear being gunned down for their political beliefs.

That's what this episode really is: A reflection of a terrifying reality, not a creation of it; a mirror on our country, not a distortion of it. A state whose most famous politician once insisted that "extremism is no vice" has now become a "mecca for prejudice and bigotry" -- a mecca that is also unfortunately a microcosm. The fact that so many are now trying to ramrod this tragedy into red-versus-blue talking points, trying to save face, and trying to avoid expressing any personal remorse/apology for fear of admitting imperfection -- all of that is America's now tried and true way of avoiding the most painful realization we don't want to face: We have met the enemy, and he is us.