Words matter, both in the Middle East and the United States


The horrifying massacre in Tucson, Arizona, targeting American Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, leaving her critically injured and killing six other people, again demonstrates that domestic terrorism in the United States, of which this is almost certainly a variant, can arise from many sources other than Muslim extremists.

The most recent comparable event of this magnitude, the Fort Hood massacre by Major Nidal Hasan, was seized on by much of the American right as another example of the pathology inherent in either Islam itself or contemporary Muslim culture. However, this latest outrage reminds us how many different ideologies can inform crazed acts of murderous violence.

There is a complex relationship between incendiary rhetoric and extremist violence. Many on the American left immediately pointed to inflammatory language against Giffords and others by right-wing ideologues such as the former Alaska governor, Sarah Palin, and sought to tarnish the entire American right with the massacre.

That’s going too far. The motivations of the plainly deranged young man who perpetrated the Tucson killings, Jared Loughner, are not yet clear, and what exactly influenced him to go on this rampage has yet to be fully established. As with recent terrorist outrages in the Middle East, such as attacks on Christians in Iraq and Egypt, the direct blame lies with the killers themselves.

However, it would also be wrong to dismiss the relationship between even implicit incitement and its ultimate translation into violence at the hands of lunatics. My colleague Ziad Asali, president of the American Task Force on Palestine, and I have recently written about the relationship between language and violence in the Arab context. Words matter. As we’ve pointed out, there is a progression between rhetoric that begins with chauvinistic bluster, descends into proclamations of fear and hatred, and finally informs acts of murderous violence.

This doesn’t mean that those who engage in irresponsible rhetoric bear a direct blame for the acts of those who take their words too literally, or their ideology to an irrational but predictable conclusion. But it does mean that everyone has a responsibility to carefully weigh the potential consequences of their interventions and understand the potential effect on some of their audience.

Arizona has been a hotbed of inflammatory rhetoric in the United States in recent years. The immigration debate; the Minuteman and Tea Party movements; the effort to promote the bearing of arms in public spaces; angry rhetoric about “taking the country back;” and dark implications about the origins, motivations and loyalties of President Barack Obama have all been strong features of its political climate.

The chief law enforcement officer of the site of the massacre, Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik, a Democrat, bluntly stated, “When you look at unbalanced people, how they respond to the vitriol that comes out of certain mouths about tearing down the government – the anger, the hatred, the bigotry that goes on in this country is getting to be outrageous. Unfortunately, Arizona, I think, has become the capital.”

Naturally many on the American right have reacted with anger at the suggestion that their side of the political aisle bears any kind of collective responsibility for this outrage. After I lamented the consequences of the deterioration of political discourse in that state, I had an angry exchange with Noah Pollack. He was most recently involved in an Emergency Committee for Israel, the “emergency” apparently being that there was a Democrat in the White House.

Pollack was not surprisingly, and perhaps reasonably, upset at the implication that the American right in general bears any kind of responsibility for the actions of a lone lunatic. Perhaps he now knows how Arab and Muslim Americans felt after the Fort Hood massacre.

Indeed, how many of us had that familiar post-9/11 reflex reaction: “How horrible, but thank goodness it wasn’t an Arab or a Muslim culprit.” After almost 10 years of living with the constant terror of that kind of collective blame, enough is enough. Those whose incitement may have egged on the Arizona shooter bear their share of responsibility, but not direct blame. Those whose incitement provokes Muslim extremist terrorism must be similarly held to account. But no ethnic or religious community could conceivably be held responsible.

Some, such as Jack Shafer of Slate, have suggested that any effort to condemn extreme speech is tantamount to unacceptable censorship. However, in reality it’s up to all of us to set minimal standards for what can be regarded as responsible, acceptable speech, and what must be shunned as outrageous or indeed dangerous. The American right and left, like the Islamist right and Arab nationalist left, have a responsibility to police their ranks, or accept their share of the responsibility, if not direct blame, for the predictable acts of violence that the incendiary rhetoric they tolerate or promote is bound to eventually provoke.