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Denouncing Violent Rhetoric, the Sheriff Gets it Right

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The massacre in Tucson on Saturday rightfully shook all of us -- regardless of our political leanings -- to the core. When faced with an assassination attempt and a mass murder, political affiliations don't and shouldn't matter. In the aftermath of the shooting spree that left six dead, Rep. Gabrielle Giffords critically injured, and 13 others wounded, Republicans and Democrats alike have stated clearly and repeatedly that violence has no place in our democracy. Unfortunately, not all have been so quick to denounce a corollary problem: the increased presence and acceptance of calls to violence in our political debate.

Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik, a legitimate voice of reason, became the center of a curious political firestorm after discussing frankly in a news conference Saturday the violent political climate that surrounded Jared Lee Loughner's assassination attempt, saying, "I think it's time as a country that we need to do a little soul searching":

When you look at unbalanced people, how they respond to the vitriol that comes out of certain mouths about tearing down the government, the anger, the hatred, the bigotry that goes on in this country is getting to be outrageous. And unfortunately, Arizona has become sort of the capital. We have become the mecca for prejudice and bigotry.

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Let me say one thing, because people tend to pooh-pooh this business about all the vitriol that we hear inflaming the American public by people who make a living off of doing that. That may be free speech, but it's not without consequences.

Dupnik's remarks did not place blame on any political party. Instead, he told the truth about a political climate where mistrust of government, talk of revolution, and calls to violence have become commonplace and even accepted. This climate -- where a senate candidate can talk about "Second Amendment remedies" and a popular talk show host can compare President Obama to Adolph Hitler -- was as much of a problem on the day before the shootings as it is today. Dupnik is correct that whatever the gunman's motives, the tragedy in Tucson should be an urgent call to reexamine a political climate where fear mongering and violent, dehumanizing language are pushed as legitimate political tools.

But Sheriff Dupnik has now become a political scapegoat for those who would prefer to sweep under the rug the very real implications of a national political debate that's saturated with violence. Sen. Jon Kyl of Arizona called Dupnik's remarks "speculation" and said his comments shouldn't have "had any part in a law enforcement briefing." (It's worth noting that Sen. Kyl seems to turn a blind eye to the briefings hosted by Sheriff Joe Arpaio of neighboring Maricopa County, which regularly contain extreme anti-immigrant rhetoric.) Fox News' Megyn Kelly accused Dupnik of "speculative" discussion and "putting a political spin on this." Rush Limbaugh attacked Dupnik, saying "my guess is Sheriff wouldn't mind if the shooter was acquitted." Judson Phillips, head of Tea Party Nation, labeled Dupnik a "leftist sheriff" attempting to "silence" conservatives. "[T]he aftermath of today's shooting is the official obituary for political civility in this country," he said, "The left has simply gone too far. There can be no civil discourse with people as crazy as those on the left are."

Unfortunately, "civil discourse" is exactly what's lost when calls for honesty and responsibility are demonized and belittled. Nobody but Loughner can be blamed for Saturday's violence. But that does not absolve any of us from the duty to consider the impact of our words and to approach political discourse with honesty and responsibility. Sheriff Dupnik deserves to be thanked, not demonized, for telling that uncomfortable truth.

Those who talk openly and honestly about the dangerous strains in our national political discourse and work to start a more responsible political debate aren't politicizing tragedy--they're working to prevent it. Political figures owe this to all of us who want to participate in democracy without fearing for our safety: those who denounce violence should also denounce the rhetoric that can incite it.