First Thoughts on the Representative Giffords Shooting and Our Toxic Civil Discourse


January 8, 2011 by D Stack

As I write this, the facts about the shooting of Arizona Representative Gabrielle Giffords (among several others) are somewhat scant. The shooter seems to have been apprehended but the motivation behind the shooting is unknown.

To be honest, my first thought, once I heard the basic facts, was “oh my God a nine-year old was killed”. I’m the father of two girls, currently eight and five. I’m usually the one who does the grocery shopping in the family and I’ll often take one or both of them with me. So that’s the thing I’m thinking most about. Imagine just doing your normal thing. “Oh hey look there’s our Representative”. And then, in a moment, your life is horrifically forever changed.

I also didn’t know the party of Representative Giffords off the top of my head. I was heading out the door to take the kids to a birthday party and saw mention of a shooting on Facebook. I later heard on the BBC World Service over satellite radio some of the details, including the fact that many bystanders were killed.


At this point I’m going to be talking politics. Like I said we don’t know all the facts. But what I’m reflecting on is the toxic environment in which these injuries and deaths took place. It is an environment which may not have contributed to this shooting.

I don’t know what motivations this killer might have. He might be an extreme right-wing nut-job who felt he was protecting the country from a descent into communism. He might be an extreme left-wing nut-job who was incensed at Representative Giffords centrist “blue dog” positions. He might be a John Hinkley-type assassin, mentally ill and trying to impress some celebrity.

I’ve seen comments out there on social media sites and blogs that this was definitively the result of Tea Party/Sarah Palin/etc. rhetoric. It is obviously too early to judge whatever motives this individual might have had and what, if anything, directly inspired him.

However, I do worry about the fact that the tone of our civil discourse has descended to the point where it is easy to conceive of the possibility that this rhetoric may have inspired him.

When President Ronald Reagan was shot in 1981, it was unthinkable that Walter Mondale, the defeated vice-presidential candidate in 1980, could have been behind any of the possible motivations for such an assassination attempt. Fast-forward to today and witness the rhetoric of 2008 Vice-Presidential candidate Sarah Palin.

Do I think for a moment that Sarah Palin wanted this to happen? No. Nor do I think she was the start of this. In an environment where advertisements morphed pictures of President Bush into Adolph Hitler it is also not possible to blame her or others like her on the right or left, for creating this environment. But Sarah Palin deserves special attention as she was a serious candidate for an office one heartbeat removed from the presidency. She has had a public mouthpiece as a result of this, one she has continued to use, as is certainly her right. But I believe we all have a moral obligation to choose our words with caution. President Bush explicitly condemned any demonization of Muslims in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. However former Governor Palin has consistently engaged in a rhetoric filled with extreme demonization of President Obama and the Democratic party. It is definitely appropriate for her to voice her disagreement with their policies. But a campaign of portraying President Obama of deliberately trying to weaken America and singling out several Democratic Representatives with crosshairs and instructing her followers to not retreat but “reload” is irresponsible and unbecoming of the office she sought and the one she is presumably seeking.

Is it fair to single just her out? Not completely, but she is in my opinion the most egregious example. is an organization that makes even people that support its objectives uncomfortable and is certainly one that has helped poison our civil discourse. Comparing Bush to Hitler was inappropriate and toxic as was referring to General Patraeus as “Betray-Us”. S0 I’m not letting them off the hook either.

Presidents Bush and Obama have both been compared to Adolph Hitler. That does the evil of Hitler a disservice. And it removes any chance of reasonable debate and discussion of their policies. Our elected officials in Congress are not seeking to destroy our union. They might be seeking a nation that we don’t like. And if so we should work to defeat them. But our system allows for that. The House of Representatives has just changed majorities. President Obama will have to stand for election in 2012. Representative Giffords had just won re-election in a difficult year for Democrats.

Just a few days ago Representative Giffords participated in the House Reading of the Constitution. In a painful irony she read the First Amendment, which, among other things, provides for the right of the people to petition their government. And she was giving her constituents just that opportunity when she was shot.

I’d like to close with my thoughts and prayers for all those affected by this horrible shooting. I talk a lot about politics both because it interests me and because I think it is of vital importance. This shooting seemed to showcase where we our in our political discourse – and its not a good place. But it is important not to forget those whose lives have been forever changed by this act of violence.


One thought on “First Thoughts on the Representative Giffords Shooting and Our Toxic Civil Discourse

  1. atymins13 says:

    Thank you very much for writing this. I am tired of the Republicans and Tea Partiers in Congress calling actions like these ‘isolated incidents’. It might have been isolated early on, but we can now clearly see the trend. Conservative hate rhetoric is ruining political discourse in our country, and those politicians need to be held responsible. I am ashamed at Sarah Palin and her cronies, and I would hope for an apology soon. There are no words to describe how angry I am right now.
    Thank you.
    Check me out at…

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