Monday, January 10, 2011

A Shooting in Tucson

I spoke this morning with a reporter from a national network about the terrible shootings in Arizona this weekend. She asked whether I expect that the events in Tucson will make any difference to the behavior of members of Congress.

Who knows?

It seemed to me after we talked that perhaps rather than speculating about whether Congress will change, we should ask ourselves how we might want it to change, and how we would know if it did. What differences in the talk of Congress -- and of leaders in politics and the media more generally -- would contribute to changing the tone?

Robert's Rules of Order does offer guidance on decorum in debate on the floor, in section 43:
REFRAINING FROM ATTACKING A MEMBER'S MOTIVES. When a question is pending, a member can condemn the nature or likely consequences of the proposed measure in strong terms, but he must avoid personalities, and under no circumstances can he attack or question the motives of another member. The measure, not the member, is the subject of debate. If a member disagrees with a statement by another in regard to an event that both witnessed, he cannot state in debate that the other's statement "is false." But he may say, "I believe there is strong evidence that the member is mistaken." The moment the chair hears such words as "fraud," "liar," or "lie" used about a member in debate, he must act immediately and decisively to correct the matter and prevent its repetition.
This is a good rule, as far as it goes. It is the rule that Congressman Joe Wilson violated when he shouted "You lie!" at the President last year in a joint session of Congress. In the spirit of the rule, we could go considerably further than bare compliance while still leaving plenty of room for vigorous debate and disagreement.

We don't know whether there is any direct causal connection between vitriolic political language and what happened in Tucson.

A New York Times editorial today says in part the
It is facile and mistaken to attribute this particular madman’s act directly to Republicans or Tea Party members. But it is legitimate to hold Republicans and particularly their most virulent supporters in the media responsible for the gale of anger that has produced the vast majority of these threats, setting the nation on edge. Many on the right have exploited the arguments of division, reaping political power by demonizing immigrants, or welfare recipients, or bureaucrats. They seem to have persuaded many Americans that the government is not just misguided, but the enemy of the people. . . .

"Bloodshed and Invective in Arizona," New York Times, 10 January 2011.

See also Paul Krugman, "Climate of Hate"
Gail Collins, "A Right to Bear Glocks?"
Timothy Egan, "Tombstone Politics."
David Gergen, "No Time for Finger Pointing," CNN.

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