Assessing Arizona

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In the aftermath of the shootings in Arizona on Saturday, several of MPR’s social networking efforts and our Public Insight Network staff have been collecting your reaction. Here are some of the more compelling comments we’ve received:


I think this brings up major concerns regarding the political divide in our country. Politicians and the pundit-style shows have established a mindset that we have a two-sided system where one side is pure good and the other side is pure evil. As a country we need to acknowledge that there are shades of gray and that everyone wants to do what they think is best for the country, even if I disagree with it. What impact will this event have on the public’s access to politicians? Currently politicians spend most of their time with lobbyists who have paid for the privilege. Commoners have lost their access and now will lose even more.

Jason DeBoer-Moran

I am a linguistic anthropologist with a specialization in discourse analysis and public rhetoric. Extremist political rhetoric has always been with us. However, it has accelerated in recent years due to the rapidity and ubiquity of public and social media. The chance that individuals will get caught in this web of extremism is greater today than in the past. The power of symbolism in public rhetoric as a motivating force is crucial. People an only imagine what they can imagine. Public commentators have the power to change the mindset of the public by giving people the opportunity to reframe their thinking–often in negative directions.

William Beeman

Until someone is a credible threat to themselves or others, I think we can’t help someone until they are ready to be helped. What worries me is how much credibility we give people’s writings online. There are thousands of people who will say the most outrageous things online but would never take steps to hurt anyone. I don’t want this to become a witch hunt about extreme views.

Camille Holthaus

I was a postal supervisor at the time that people were shooting up postal facilities. Believe me, we did a lot of thinking about people like Loughner. The postal service promulgated and enforced a no firearms policy. It is simply known that if you are stupid enough to take a firearm into a postal facility, you are already in trouble. This means that if you are going hunting after work, and you take your rifle to work in the trunk of your car, you can be fired. People have been fired. Note that the postal service does not have shootings any more. The firearms ban is only a small part of a comprehensive anti-violence program. Society needs an anti-violence program; you might want to look at the elements of the postal program to see what that program might be.

Paul Ryberg

The ultimate responsibility rests upon the shoulders of the shooter. That being said, the move to deinstitutionalize the mentally ill has led to less access to treatment. Additionally this has also led to the refusal of treatment by the severely mentally ill, who, nearly by definition lack the capacity to render competent judgment upon their respective mental state and to their need for treatment.

Leo Pusateri

As an immigrant from Europe, the American fascination with guns both puzzles and dismays me. I do not understand why it is considered OK for someone to buy a dangerous weapon and not have to take any kind of training, and can just walk out of the store with it. The fantasy is that you will be able to protect yourself. Well. How come then, than when people saw what was going on around Gifford, that someone with a gun did not take action!

Susan Clarke

In every case of a gun crime, the specific gun used and its characteristics need to be prominently described by the media, as happened here. Slowly, I think, the public will come to know there is a difference between guns for killing people and guns for hunting, and maybe that’s an important difference.

Brent Wennberg

Despite my anti-handgun and anti-violence views, we need to step back from the analysis of this particular situation. Yes, the rhetoric and the cross hairs may have influenced the shooter, but there is a good chance they didn’t. The man who shot Reagan thought he was protecting make believe actress girl friend, not making a political statement The initial speculation of Arab terrorists in the OK City bombing were completely wrong. A very popular minister was stabbed to death in Sweden a few years ago by a mentally ill man without political motives. Trying to place blame based on pure speculation helps no one. People will hold onto speculation they agree with long after it has been proven completely and undeniably false, and it only serves to harden the already overly contentious divisions in this country.

Paul Conklin

I own over 10 firearms and I bad mouth all who think it is cool to own a pistol let alone an AK or the like. I hunt and am shocked by the guys I see at the range with banana clips and their military weapons. I feel that we do have a right to have guns and I see no hope in regulating this practice. All it will do is pull any and probably all gun owners to the wrong side of question. It is a little like abortion. It is a no-win argument.

Thomas Mickelson

We’ve had attempted assassinations by people with unstable personalities for as long as the country has existed. Trying to use this tragedy as a political weapon to go after (or blame) those with opposing viewpoints is intellectually dishonest and the most base and cynical kind of partisanship–ironically, the very thing those doing so are trying to blame.

Mark Luebker

How about it’s not political so much as it is symbol of our national mental health crisis? If this young man was “mentally unstable” as the media continues to speculate, how did he get to the point of hurting other people? When you contact a mental health practitioner, the first answering machine statement is “if you believe you might hurt yourself or other people, please call 911.” This young man needed mental health crisis control and I would submit that there is not enough staff in the mental heath world to care for all patients who need help.

Marti Priest Nelson

The recent and tragic shooting, while it does remind politicians, the media, and the general public of the hazards of the noxious political rhetoric between the polar opposites of our country and a need for a call to political and social civility, it really needs to be looked at from a mental health perspective. Millions of us, daily, take in the political discourse without taking up a gun. Loughner needed greater mental health screening. When we see mental illness as a form of terrorism on homeland soil, we may be on the right track. Education, screening, outreach, prevention, and intervention are just some of the measures we need.

Alena Goldfarb

Maybe the silent majority, who I believe still have common sense and understand the golden rule, can’t be silent anymore. Shine a light on the inappropriate, talk to friends, family, and strangers use your voice and speak the truth in love before crazy fear totally rules all our lives!

Rae Ann Mathias

This question presupposes that something needs to be done. It’s been a long, long time since there has been a successful assault on a public official, meaning that the security we have in place is working. If we as a nation continue to put into place unnecessary security functions because of singular acts, we are going to burden and tax ourselves for no purpose. There is no perfect defense against the fringe, the best we can hope for is secure enough to avoid these tragedies most of the time, and we are there already.

Jon Bohlinger

  • Nathan

    On Talk of the Nation this afternoon a guest made the remark that to refer to political opponents as “the open-border crowd” is an example of hateful rhetoric. Recently a journalist group began moving to have “illegal immigrant” deemed an offensive term. It seems to me that this constant call to “tone down the rhetoric” is, to a large degree, an attempt to chill and stifle discourse.

    Many of the people calling for an end to the “vitriol” are in fact trying to stir things up themselves. I am certainly no Sarah Palin fan (and far from it), but the hurried attempt to link this event to her or to Tea Party protesters has reminded me of a flock of salivating vultures.

    People should be very wary right now of attempts to stigmatize political discourse. There has always been an effort to discredit and cow dissenters. Right now we see it heating up and it’s very dangerous. This is the issue people should be discussing.

  • Minnwhaler

    I can only point to the recent arrests of teens accused of harassing peers on the internet following the suicide of said peer.

    If they are to be held accountable for inciting an impulsive act by a person with mental health “issues” , could not the same accusation be applied to our “Public Leaders”?

    Cross hairs are cross hairs on a map or a face.

  • Nathan

    Minnwhaler,

    I think this is a manufactured connection. The Daily Kos is a liberal news source and they also put cross-hairs on Giffords. There was Obama’s statement that “If [Republicans] bring a knife to the fight, we bring a gun.” Rep. Giffords had liberal stances and conservative stances. This issue can be spun every which way, but that’s political opportunism and it’s disingenuous. Who is it exactly that you want to hold to accountable for this young man’s actions?

    It doesn’t seem clear that the fellow had any coherent political views. Some of his acquaintances have described him as left-wing, but most say he was just all over the place. Apparently, he once asked the congresswoman the question, “What’s government if words don’t have meaning?” That’s not an indication of a political view; that’s an indication of bat**it crazy.

    So who exactly is it you think egged him on? Obama? Palin? Heavy-metal? Rev. Wright? Hannity? Video games? It seems like a pretty subjective game to be playing.

    When we criticized policies under Bush, we were “unpatriotic” and “putting the troops in harm’s way”. When we criticize policy under Obama, we’re “racists”. These are tactics. It’s about managing public perceptions, dividing people into stereotypical camps, and making quieting down opposition.

    When the shooting took place, one of the first things I heard was how there might be a Tea Party connection, which appartently there was not. At the last Tea Party I went to people were playing anti-war songs. The majority of the Tea Party people I know are peace advocates. You’ll find examples of vitriol, as well, but there’s also been swastikas and name calling at illegal immigrants’ rights gatherings. There was a plethora of hateful and threatening anti-Bush images when he was president. That kind of stuff isn’t new and it’ll always be around, but what concerns me is this attempt to selectively *target* people for blame, this attempt to stigmatize dissent.

    Now we’ve got Janet Napolitano with her “If You See Something, Say Something” campaign. We’ve got this narrative that if one’s political rhetoric becomes too impassioned, they might be held responsible for inciting violence. And if people voice the wrong political views, then they are ‘extreme’ and to be regarded with suspicion.

    Does this not bother you?

  • John O.

    Fear is the fuel for the vitriol on all sides–not just the right. Whether that fear is a law (health care, for instance), fear of changing economic conditions, fear of personal “failure” (whatever that might be), etc., fear is a very powerful emotion that can lead otherwise rational, reasonable people to say and do things that most in our society would consider risque. At the most extreme, the reaction can be lethal.

    Many politicians and media personalities (especially at the national level) enjoy large paychecks, higher than average living standards, and legions of followers who eagerly await the next day’s broadcast, podcast, column, speech and/or show. These are the folks who have made an art of distilling fears into a potent cocktail of vitriol, hate and/or paranoia on both sides of the political spectrum and have profited handsomely from it.

  • Gregs

    It is safe to say Jared Loughner suffers from mental illness. A larger question is how he came by this illness or whether his condition was aggravated by our toxic political environment.

    We tend to think of mental illness as something we either have or don’t, like a cold. But it is not like that at all. Most often, it is more like a chronic low-grade fever. Something we only notice when it flares up. People can catch a disease and never know they have it, until the symptoms become apparent.

    When something like this happens to a person, we call it an illness. When it happens to a large population, we call it a pandemic.

    IMHO, when societies get stressed by war or economic hard times, they are more vulnerable to disease – just like individuals.

    Isn’t it time we recognize toxic partisanship for what it is, a pandemic of mental illness and address it before the symptoms get worse?

  • Bob Collins

    For purposes of definition, mental illness is a matter of neurology, not ideology.

  • Jeanne

    Thanks for the clarification, Bob.

  • GregS

    “mental illness is a matter of neurology, not ideology. – Bob”

    I am not too sure about that. Mailing an angry letter is well within the scope of normal political discourse and mental health, mailing a bomb is not.

    Case in point, Kathy Soliah, Bill Ayers and Timothy McVeigh.

    Were these people suffering from neurological problems or were they tipped into a social psychosis by radical politics?

  • Nathan

    Clinical terms become colloquial terms and lose their exact meaning. Words like ‘anti-social’, ‘paranoid’, and ‘delusional’ have looser meanings when used in a casual context than they do when they’re used in a medical context.

    It’s one thing to say that certain political views and actions are ‘crazy’, ‘mad’, ‘insane’, but when we start using terms like ‘mental illness’ to describe the things we think are loony, it’s possible that we might be pretending at expertise we don’t really have. And that’s when I think Bob’s clarification becomes useful.

    Not everything that seems crazy to us needs to be a mental illness.

    (On the other side of the coin, not every example mental illness needs to be politicized.)

  • GregS

    “Not everything that seems crazy to us needs to be a mental illness. – Nathan”

    Hmmmm, go back to the newspaper archives and read the ramblings of the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA). It is some pretty sick stuff – literally.

    So we need to ask, is self induced delusion and disassociation from reality, a bout with mental illness or is it like Bob suggests, ideology?

    At what point do we stop talking about politics and realize that what we have is illness?