If you had told me last week that half the media would be blaming Sarah Palin for the actions of a leftish nutcase, or that Keith Olberman would be accusing, well, anybody, of being too immoderate in their rhetoric, I would have said you were crazy. Seldom have I found the tone and tenor of the media coverage of any event to be less satisfactory than with the Giffords shooting this weekend. So of course, I have joined the fray with my own column on Forbes.
We libertarians cringe when presented with a “national tragedy” like the shooting of Gabriella Giffords. Not because we are somehow more or less sensitive to vilence and loss of life, but because we begin bracing for the immediate, badly thought-out expansion of state power that nearly always follows any such tragedy, whether it be 9/11 or Columbine or Oklahoma City or even Pearl Harbor. Those looking to expand the power of the state, and of state officials, make their greatest progress in the emotional aftermath of a such a tragedy. These tragedies are the political equivilent of the power play in ice hockey, when defenders of liberty find themselves temporarily shorthanded, and those wishing to expand state power rush to take advantage.
Here is one example from later in the piece:
After 9/11, Republicans argued that it was time to put away political differences to rally around the President in a time of war. They implied that criticizing the President in such a time was somehow unpatriotic and counter-productive. Was this true? I thought the opposite — that the momentous decisions to be made post-9/11 demanded more rather than less debate. America would eventually wake up from this celebration of unity with a hangover in the form of the TSA, the Patriot Act, detention at Guantanamo Bay, and wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The fact is that politicians, particularly those in power, find every excuse to ask Americans to “moderate their public discourse,” in large part because this request translates in the real world to “reduce the criticisms of those in power.” So it should not be surprising that many of those who represent our current ruling party blamed the Giffords shooting on the hate-filled rhetoric of the opposition party, even before we knew the name of the killer,.
From a larger historical perspective, I would argue that current political discourse is really rather tame. Even the wackiest cable opinion show pales in comparison to the fire-breathing political attacks that could be found in nearly any 19th century newspaper. In the 1960’s, political discourse became so heated that it spilled out into the streets in the form of urban riots. In fact, what we should fear far more than our rhetoric is the current threats by politicians like Jim Clyburn of South Carolina to use this tragedy as an excuse to put new restrictions on speech. A number of high-profile comentators have spent more time blaming this shooting on Sarah Palin than on the shooter himself. Given the complete lack of evidence for any such connection, such efforts can only be viewed as an effort by those on power to silence a prominent opposition leader.