PHOENIX, ARIZONA -- A friend of an old friend on Facebook this weekend characterized Saturday's shooting as, "a good way to get rid of Democrats." How did American political discourse ever reach a point where something like this could be said just hours after a mass shooting that killed members of our community?
A moderate member of Congress lies unconscious in critical condition. The young intern who saved her life suffered a trauma that will change him forever. A 9-year-old girl who was just elected to her student council had her bright future snuffed out in an instant. A young man who went to work in Washington, DC with high hopes of bettering our country had his life dashed in blood on the sidewalk. A man who sacrificed years studying and practicing the law saw his tenure as federal judge cut short in the single flash of a gun.
Will Americans use this moment to turn from a dangerous path of destructive rhetoric? Or will this moment become a turning point down an even darker path?
I do not believe Sarah Palin or Michele Bachmann should be arrested for any criminal conduct as some fellow Democrats have suggested. Even as an Arizonan deeply affected by yesterday's shooting, I see clearly that being wrong doesn't equate to committing a specific crime. It is time, however, for all Americans, regardless of political ideology, stand together to defend our democracy against those who would turn America into a country ruled by intimidation or violence.
Near the end of the 2008 election season, I wrote about the dangers inherent in characterizing political opponents as "the other" -- specifically, as enemies. After the mass genocides of the last century, many psychologists wanted to know how normal people could engage in such horrific war crimes. Research has shown that certain types of rhetoric will activate automated human survival mechanisms, causing people to act in ways they normally would not -- irrational, mindlessly conformant, violent.
While many Americans realize that something is different about today's polarized rhetoric, psychologists like Jeffery Feldman have been warning that these instinctual feelings have basis. Something is different. Dangerous. Over the last couple of years, many conservatives have been unknowingly using (I give them the benefit of the doubt) rhetoric that has scientifically been shown to be dangerous.
When a political movement is successful in dehumanizing and characterizing political opponents as the enemy of deeply ingrained values and beliefs across a broader community, the result is always violence.
America was founded on the idea of a robust democracy, ruled by discourse and reason, never violence and intimidation. When violent talk makes its way into political discourse, that talk is inherently un-American, and every American has a civic duty to stand up to this kind of political intimidation. When political opponents are characterized as enemies of our society, this rhetoric presents a real danger to our democracy, and the real enemy of the state is this rhetoric.
The next time you hear someone call anyone a traitor for merely having a political position, stand up and say 'enough.' Real patriots stand up for the free speech and other political freedoms of all Americans, even those with whom they disagree most strongly.
Over the last 24 hours, many on the left have pointed fingers at those on the right for directly causing yesterday's tragic events, while those on the right have pointed back, bemoaning their status as victims of false accusations, pointing toward the mental illness the shooter clearly suffered from. Neither side is right. Those on the right are no more enemies of the state or enemies our society as those on the left.
Republicans, Democrats, Independents, every American: It is time we all stand together, as Americans and denounce violent, dangerous rhetoric for what it is: un-American.