If one word summed up the past two years in American politics, it was this: anger.
Anger at the nation’s unemployment and all the foreclosures. Anger at President Obama and his health-care effort. Anger at the Tea Party.
And this anger sometimes manifested itself into over-the-top vitriolic rhetoric, especially coming from the right.
In the summer of 2009, we saw those rowdy, contentious town-hall meetings protesting the health legislation. We saw a few protestors carrying weapons and reciting Thomas Jefferson’s quote, “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.”
During the campaign season, we saw a Tea Party candidate for Congress produce an advertisement with the message “gather your armies”; we heard Nevada GOP Senate candidate Sharron Angle talking about “2nd Amendment remedies”; and we saw former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin (R) create a “target” list with bulls eyes around vulnerable Democrats who voted for the health-care bill.
And in Arizona, Republican Ben Quayle, who won his congressional contest, ran an advertisement calling Obama the worst president in U.S. history and vowing to “knock the hell” out of Congress.
Of course, not all the over-the-top rhetoric came from the right (liberal Congressman Alan Grayson, who lost his bid for re-election, described his GOP opponent as “Taliban Dan” in one TV ad), and some of it wasn’t new (there were plenty of angry protests directed at George W. Bush’s presidency, and political duels and canings are chapters in the nation's history).
But the recent accumulation of political anger -- in addition to all the attention it received -- created a potent powder keg that was ripe to explode, as it did yesterday in Arizona, when a man opened fire at Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords’ (D) event for constituents, killing six and wounding 14 others --including Giffords, who remains in critical condition.
"We need to do some soul searching," Pima County (AZ) Sheriff Clarence Dupnik, a Democrat, said yesterday. "It's the vitriolic rhetoric that we hear day in and day out from people in the radio business and some people in the TV business.”
Dupnik added, "People tend to pooh-pooh this business about the vitriol that inflames American public opinion by the people who make a living off of that. That may be free speech but it's not without consequences."
To be sure, it appears that the alleged shooter, Jared Lee Loughner, wasn’t a Tea Party protestor. A YouTube site that’s apparently his contains political rhetoric that’s far removed from either the political right or left. ("... I know who's listening: Government Officials, and the People. Nearly all the people, who don't know this accurate information of a new currency, aren't aware of mind control and brainwash methods. If I have my civil rights, then this message wouldn't have happen," the YouTube page says.)
And members from both political parties quickly -- and strongly -- condemned yesterday’s violence. "An attack on one who serves is an attack on all who serves,” House Speaker John Boehner said on Sunday morning. “Such acts of violence have no place in our society.”
But the tragedy in Arizona raises this question: Does the political rhetoric from both sides now begin to change, at least in the short term?
Already, House Republicans -- who gained control of the chamber last week and who are committed to rolling back some of Obama’s legislative achievements -- have suspended all legislative activity for the coming week, including their vote to repeal the health-care law.
Or does the rhetoric worsen? As the New York Times’ Matt Bai writes, “The more pressing question, though, is where this all ends — whether we will begin to re-evaluate the piercing pitch of our political debate in the wake of Saturday’s shooting, or whether we are hurtling unstoppably into a frightening period more like the late 1960s.”