The recent shooting in Tucson raises a couple of concerns that we should all be a little more sober to.
Firstly, if anything is to blame, it is our vicious bipartisanship and toxic attitudes. The tone of political discourse in the country has taken an increasingly bitter edge. That being said, however, I don’t think it is accurate to claim that political rhetoric caused the shooting. Loughner was severely mentally ill, and his ideas seem to be so far disconnected from political reality that it would be a great stretch to say he was influenced by political rhetoric of the left or right. It simply isn’t fair to blame one side or another—the link between causation is extremely hazy, and considering the mental state of the shooter it would be wise to wait longer than five minutes after the shooting to pass such a grave judgment.
Secondly, this incident highlights a need to hold ourselves and the media to a higher standard. A lot of debate has taken place lately as to whether or not the politicization of journalism is ultimately a good thing. We have seen the rise of institutions that are rewarded by how well they can “stroke the audiences’ pleasure buttons,” to use the words of David Brooks; see Fox News, Huffington Post, to name just two. Within minutes of the shooting, the mud flying had started; some blamed conservative talk Radio. More blamed Sarah Palin. Rush Limbaugh said that Loughner has the support of the Democratic Party. Doesn’t this defeat the purpose, though—using viciousness to counter viciousness? This incident serves as a prime example as to what happens when a news agency pushes an agenda. Relevant issues are set aside. Opportunism goes wild in efforts to pass blame. Exploitation surrounds tragedy. We should be asking questions that are both more relevant and perhaps more difficult. About 1 percent of the seriously mentally ill are violent, yet account for about half of the rampages in the US. How we can keep the mentally ill from obtaining firearms? How we can better treat mentally ill people as they struggle to define reality? If indeed political rhetoric is to blame, is there evidence besides stark and naked opportunism? How can we better protect those serving in the government? Moderation means making a legitimate effort to understand these issues–taking alternative views, understanding where others come from, gathering in the facts. This is not what some of the more popular news agencies are doing today—there simply is no effort to be moderate. Great and thoughtful and careful journalism does exist, though, and it exists in abundance if you know where to look. But these sources will only be brought to the forefront if a concerned and intelligent citizenry wills them to be so.
(For a great discussion on moderation, see here.)