I returned home from the grocery market this past Saturday to find my wife on the verge of tears as she relayed to me the news of the horrific shooting in Tucson, AZ that left Congresswoman Giffords in critical condition, several others dead including a federal judge, a nine year old girl, a staff member of the Congresswoman, and senior citizens, as well as several others wounded. This is truly a sad moment, one that has occurred far too many times in our past. This is a time when our country needs to lend its support and send our condolences to the families and loved ones of those who died, and our best wishes for full recovery to those who were wounded in this awful tragedy.
This piece is not about pre-determining the motives or stability of Mr. Loughner in this awful crime; an investigation will get to the bottom of that. This is about the heated, provocative, and conspiratorial rhetoric that has infested our politics and our society in recent times. Words do matter. Words can be inspirational such as President Reagan telling Mr. Gorbachev to ‘tear down this wall’, or FDR in his first inaugural address saying to a country during troubled times that the “only thing we have to fear is fear itself”, or Dr. King’s visionary ‘I Have a Dream’ speech. Words can also cause great damage, incite violence and contribute to hate crimes. It was during difficult economic times in Post WWI Germany where hate language and scapegoating of Jews, socialists, and other groups took hold and fueled what was arguably the most horrific event of the 20th century – the systematic extermination of millions of human beings. Today we have witnessed a spate of hate crimes in our gay and muslim communities, segments of our society that have been the subject of hate language (ref) (ref).
In the corporate world there is a term called ‘hostile environment’. Should there be an act of violence or harassment committed within a corporation, it is not always a simple matter to say that some imbalanced or despicable person was at fault – a serious consideration is whether the corporation fostered or tolerated an environment that contributed to the act. And indeed corporations can be held accountable and even sued for fostering or tolerating an environment that leaves the door open for violent or harassing behavior. As CEO of my corporation I had written into employment agreements that we had a ‘zero tolerance policy’ regarding hostile, harassing and discriminatory behavior. The success of such a policy is set by the tone of leadership and a firm hand at the top.
Since the election of President Obama there have been hundreds of percent increases in death threats against the president and elected lawmakers, as well as in the number of anti-government militias. Guns have become a part of the political rhetoric with such provocative statements as reload, take aim, second amendment remedies, taking out an incumbent, if ballots don’t work bullets will, firing automatic weapons at a fundraiser, placing rifle crosshairs over Congressional districts and displaying the names of ‘targeted’ incumbents, etc. And loaded weapons have shown up all too frequently at healthcare reform rallies, a bullet having been fired into a Congressman’s office who opposed the AZ immigration law, a holstered and concealed gun carried by a Healthcare Reform protestor dropping to the floor during a previous event by Congresswoman Giffords. And pundits light up the airwaves with conspiracy theories that there are communists in the administration, that our African-American president is a racist and has a deep seated hatred of white people and has formed a ‘civilian national security force’ similar to Hitler’s SS. Has an environment been created by politicians and pundits alike that fosters hostility? I believe the answer to that is all too apparent.
Yes, words do matter. And the power and impact of words are influenced by the times as well as the stability and ideological leanings of those who listen to them. There is little arguing that we are in troubled times with the personal stress many have experienced during this economic downturn. That, coupled with provocative rhetoric and conspiratorial nonsense coming over the airwaves, in this writer’s opinion, contributes to a toxic political and social environment that can push some to the point of violent behavior.
Regarding our current environment, I have compiled and referenced the following list, by no means all inclusive, for consideration.
- Within his first year in office, President Barack Obama faced up to 30 death threats a day, an increase of 400% from that reported under President G.W. Bush, that were stretching the Secret Service (ref).
- Following the election of President Obama, there was an estimated 300% increase in anti-government hate militias (ref).
- There have been instances of individuals carrying loaded weapons to Healthcare Reform town halls attended by the president: 1) about a dozen people in Phoenix, AZ (Congresswoman’s Giffords state) including one with an AR-15 assault rifle; and 2) one arrested at an Obama town hall on healthcare in New Hampshire for carrying an unregistered loaded gun as well as one carrying a loaded registered gun on his leg holding a sign quoting Jefferson – ‘The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time, with the blood of patriots and tyrants’(ref).
- Multiple instances of vandalism at Democratic lawmaker’s offices as well as threats issued to at least 10 House members following passage of the Healthcare Reform legislation (ref). In the first 3 months of 2010 alone, officials reported 42 threats to federal lawmakers, nearly 3 times the cases reported during the same time period a year earlier – included was Congresswoman Giffords (ref).
- Following the passage of Healthcare Reform legislation, a militia group planned a gun rally just a few miles from the Capitol and the White House. A sponsor of the event, Oath Keepers, abruptly pulled out saying that “It had gotten to the point that it would be dangerous to attend” and cited an escalation of threatening rhetoric online from some participants (ref).
- Conservative radio host Joyce Kauffman issued the following at a Tea Party rally: “…the most important thing the founding fathers did to ensure me my First Amendment rights was they gave me a Second Amendment. And if ballots don’t work, bullets will” (ref). Tea Party supported Representative Allen West (R-Ft. Lauderdale) hired Kaufman as his chief of staff prior to Kaufman resigning shortly thereafter amidst controversy (ref).
- Representative Michele Bachmann (R-Minn) stated that she wanted residents of her state “armed and dangerous” over President Obama’s plan to reduce global warming (ref).
- During the 2010 midterm elections, Republican senate nominee Sharron Angle of Nevada said that “if this Congress keeps going the way it is, people are really looking toward those Second Amendment remedies”. She immediately added “I’ll tell you the first thing we need to do is take Harry Reid out” (ref).
- One of the dozen or so individuals at the Phoenix, AZ Healthcare town hall attended by the president (mentioned above), who was carrying a loaded weapon, stated on camera that he was prepared to resort to forceful resistance against the Obama administration. The day prior to that event that same man attended a service at his church where his pastor stated in a sermon that he wanted Sasha and Malia to be fatherless and that he wanted Michelle Obama to be a widow (ref). Again, this is Congresswoman Gifford’s state.
- Representative Raul Grijalva (D-AZ), who opposed Arizona’s immigration law, closed his office in April, 2010 after receiving death threats, including one caller ‘who threatened to go down there and blow everyone’s brains out…” (ref). In July of that year his office was once again closed after a shattered window and a bullet was discovered inside (ref). Again, Congresswoman Gifford’s state.
- In August 2009, a protestor to Healthcare Reform legislation, who showed up to meet Congresswoman Giffords at one of her events in a supermarket, was removed by police when the pistol he had holstered under his armpit fell and bounced on the floor (ref).
- Sarah Palin’s Facebook page carried a map featuring 20 gun sites, one for each of the Democrats (listed by name) who were identified by her political action committee SarahPAC. Provocative language such as ‘Reload’, ‘aim’, and ‘salvo’ were part of the dialog (ref).
- During a June 2010 fundraiser, Jesse Kelly (Congresswoman Giffords’ challenger during the recent mid-term election) asked supporters to help him ‘remove’ Giffords from her public office by shooting a loaded M-16. The headline for the event read: “Get on target for Victory in November. Help remove Gabrielle Giffords from office. Shoot a fully automatic M16 with Jesse Kelly” (ref).
- Then over conservative airwaves is Rush Limbaugh telling his followers that today’s Democratic Party “advocates for the defeat of this country” and that we have a communist threat in the administration (ref); and Glenn Beck who stated that President Obama has a deep seated hatred of white people or the white culture, a term he could not define when pressed in interview by Katie Couric (ref) and, per Dana Millbrook, trafficked in 2009 such nonsense as death panels, government health insurance for dogs, FEMA concentration camps, an Obama ‘civilian national security force’ like Hitler’s SS or Saddam Hussein’s Republican Guard, a government official advocating forced abortions and sterilization agents in water (ref).
I have examined the claim that both parties have participated in this type of rhetoric and imagery and had examples sent to my attention; and indeed they have. But I find the gun rhetoric and threats very heavily weighted to the right these days. There is a map of the US issued by the DLC during the GW Bush years entitled ‘Targeting Strategy’ with archery-type targets on several states saying that those states should be ‘ripe targets for Democrats’. There is a map of US issued by the DCCC that carries bulls eyes, with one identifying Thaddeus McCotter as a ‘Targeted Republican” for his vote against the economic recovery package. And John McCain has defended Ms. Palin’s use of crosshairs and language as having been part of the political rhetoric for many a year. Indeed, in the business world we would say that we targeted a competitor company if we felt we could take market share. Where I find these examples different is that the recent imagery and language must be placed into the context of an environment that discusses second amendment remedies, bullets vs ballots, escalating death threats, etc. I disagree with Senator McCain – he ignored the tone of environment that existed when Ms. Palin’s language and imagery was issued. However, instances like Alan Grayson’s Taliban ad against his opponent is deplorable (ref) and then candidate Obama could have chosen a less provocative metaphor in Philadelphia than “If they bring a knife to the fight, we bring a gun”(ref). Suffice it to say that all of our leaders should choose their words carefully.
The tone is set at the leadership level, whether it be in business or politics. Our current environment exists because it has been permitted to exist and it has been played for political and financial gain. It is disingenuous for politicians and pundits to decry a tragic event and say that they abhor violence, when they are both contributing to, and failing to address, an environment that can push the unstable and/or ideologically-driven into taking the step of violent behavior. Had gun play broken out in a business where such imagery and rhetoric had been repeatedly used, the corporation and its leadership would have been taken to task in a court of law. I would agree with Speaker’s Boehner’s position that it is not his job to tell people what to think (ref) if the issue had involved something like ideology or religious belief. However, when members of his caucus continue to pursue a position that our President is not a valid US citizen, that is precisely the time when leadership should intervene rather than let such a claim fester.
Regarding the role of pundits, as but one example, Glenn Beck’s claim that President Obama is a racist and has a deep-seated hatred of white people or white culture in July 2009 (ref) should have been denounced as irresponsible in all quarters. Yet, a few months later, he was placed as Keynote Speaker at the 2010 CPAC, taking to the same stage as presidential hopefuls (ref). However, when his statement is put into the context of the environment we witnessed at the Healthcare Reform protests in Washington where there were multiple instances of individuals in that crowd shouting out ‘n—-r’ to African American lawmakers (who were not central players in the debate) including one from the crowd who spat upon representative Emanuel Cleaver (ref), Beck’s statement is actually dangerous, akin to throwing gasoline on the fire of hatred and bigotry – it fosters a hostile environment. I submit that his language should not be considered to be in the realm of entertainment.
If we are looking for common ground, it should be on this issue. It is not acceptable to wait for a tragic event to decry violence. Specific responsibility for a tragic event may not fall to our political leadership. However, the tone of the environment, be it in business or politics, is the responsibility of leadership, and there is little question that we have a political environment that fosters hostility.