The need to elevate political rhetoric and to better inform our grief

I find in my grieving over the senseless loss of human life and vitality at the hands of the Arizona madman a sad recognition that it will be used endlessly for political purposes. It is inevitable and has already been taken to ridiculous levels.

This is not to say that I like the coarseness of today’s political rhetoric, or really of most public discourse. I find it repulsive and I wish for more civility and constructive, artful public debate without the ad hominen attacks and unhelpful exaggerations. 

I just do not believe we should politicize the actions of a mentally unstable young man whose only philosophy seems to be nihilism, if he has the mental capacity to have any philosophy. 

Reviewing a list of political assassination attempts in our history, it is revealing that most of assailants were not motivated by political philosophy but by the lack of one. Anarchists and the mentally ill. 

Michael Gerson wrote in The Washington Post:

A killer such as John Wilkes Booth represented a conspiracy and a cause. He was shot to repudiate an idea. A would-be assassin such as John Hinckley symbolizes little more than the sad incapacity of a single mind. Based on current evidence, Loughner more closely resembles Hinckley. Yet he is different in some respects. The alleged Arizona killer shows signs of psychosis. But he also seems to have contributed to his own corruption by dabbling in moral nihilism, conspiracy theories and other drugs. In the absence of organic disease, it is possible for a man or woman to gradually destroy their character and conscience. The voice in Loughner’s head may have been his own. This does not have a crude political application.

It would be foolish to clam that rhetoric is not a precursor to acts of violence, for it defies our own experiences and observations. Name calling among youngsters can result in childish pushes and slaps. Disrespectful words among hot-blooded teens can lead to fisticuffs or gunfire. Persuasive words by public figures about the danger of a group of people or the unworthiness of a racial, ethnic, regional, religious, or gender group can rouse a mob to violent action or provide rationale to an individual to spit in someone’s face or worse.

Can a madman take artless political imagery and act on it. Sure. But he could also think he’s Batman and throw someone off a building. Shall we ban comic books?

Of course words have meaning and hateful words can lead to violence. But we should not and cannot find the mortar for all horrendous acts of violence in political rhetoric. Much of today’s political rhetoric isn’t hateful; it’s unimaginative. Politicians reverting to hackneyed ideological attacks are like comics reverting to age-old sexual humor. Can’t they find some new material?

The majority of Americans see the act of violence in Tucson as random, not political, according to Rasmussen.

If you want to see visceral, hateful rhetoric, look at the comments at the end popular blog posts, particularly if they deal with hot button topics such as Sarah Palin or global warming. There’s plenty of hate among us.  We should not encourage it, foster it, or dismiss it. But politicizing public tragedy is not the way to deal with it. The evil and empty hostility of human hearts cannot be altered by politics, but by the grace of God. On this day, that should inform our grief.


About Jim Jewell

I am a writer and consultant on faith and public life, active for many years in management and communications in the evangelical community. I now work as the director of the nonprofit practice at The Valcort Group ( Everything on this blog, however, is my personal opinion and is not read or approved before it is posted. Opinions, conclusions and other information expressed here do not necessarily reflect the views of Valcort.
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