Don't blame rhetoric for madness of 1

January 11, 2011 

It's been a rough week for America. We sometimes get so caught up in our passion over our country and the direction we think it should take that our language gets away from us. Then tragedy strikes and we are overcome with a wave of remorse for anything we may have said or done to imply to anyone that this kind of action is acceptable in America as a solution to the issues that divide us.

There is a lot of anger welling up against the tea party in general and Sarah Palin in particular. I think we need to control that anger lest we create a similar situation from the opposite end of the political spectrum. Because I would guess that despite the hot rhetoric, few in the tea party wanted to see violence used as a means to an end. And I really, really, really doubt that Sarah Palin wanted someone to die.

That this type of tragedy is sometimes the outcome of the heated rhetoric arising when our country is torn apart by competing political agendas is something we've endured for a long time. Assassinations are hardly unknown in our public life. They have a long and dishonorable history. John Wilkes Booth, Sirhan Sirhan, Lee Harvey Oswald, James Earl Ray, John Hinckley, Squeaky Fromm.

Except for the last, all men fulfilling some delusion that their actions would bring about the changes they wanted, whether political or personal. As for Squeaky, except for her gender she was just one of the pack, convinced that a gun was the answer to creating the revolution she thought we needed.

The scary part of all this is that guns have frequently succeeded in creating the chaos and revolution their handlers wanted. World War I started with one bullet and one assassination. It brought the world to flames and destroyed an order in Europe that had existed for hundreds of years.

The good news in America is that we consider those who would change us through violence to be part of the extreme fringe and so far have resisted their attempts to use violence as a means of imploding our society. We should be grateful that in America violent acts like the tragedy in Arizona this weekend have always tended to stitch us together, not rip us apart. After this kind of violent shudder, Americans have traditionally closed ranks and asserted that, above all division and diversity of thought and political affiliation, we are first and foremost Americans.

America was created as a country of laws and remains a country of laws. We may hang the occasional assassin but we do so only after a trial. And, in fact, we end up with our assassins in prison more often than not because we will not, as a nation, be pushed by these mad men and woman to become a society of anything less than one based on laws -- laws which apply to everyone equally.

So, while it might infuriate us to know that someone who attempted to kill a political leader is now living on our tax dollars in a jail somewhere, we still accept this as better than being a nation of thugs who apply the law discriminately, depending on some vague definition of who deserves the protection of the law and who doesn't.

We need to be careful in our political discourse because, quite frankly, every society on earth has its fringe members, and they tend to be people without the natural restraints our common humanity imposes on the rest of us. But we are wrong to try to lay this shooting at the doorstep of any particular party or person. One person pulled that trigger, and there is no one who can say for sure that he wouldn't have done it with or without the rhetoric of our last political season. If he really wanted to do it, he would have found a reason somewhere.

We are part of a democracy that fosters debate and discussion. It the responsibility of each and every one of us to ensure that no matter how impassioned our speech is, we never cross the line that takes our speech from championing a cause to proposing violence as a solution.

It is sad that every few decades we need to be reminded of where that line is.


Elise Patkotak is an Alaska writer and author of "Parallel Logic," her memoir of 28 years in Barrow. Web site, www.elisepatkotak.com.

Anchorage Daily News is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service