We were warned by Rep. John Lewis two years ago. He took John McCain and Sarah Palin to task during the 2008 presidential campaign for "sowing the seeds of hatred and division." Lewis knew well the consequences of political violence; he was badly beaten during civil rights protests in the South a half century ago.
Throughout last year, alerts continued, delivered by black politicians and pundits who expressed alarm about weapons at Tea Party rallies and brutal, sometimes racist rhetoric that cast President Barack Obama as a Nazi, a communist, a Middle East terrorist or, worse, an illegal alien who had somehow fooled the American people into putting him in the White House. But like a lot of the wisdom that comes out of the mouths of black folks, these warnings didn't get much play in the mainstream media.
When Lewis and Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) reported that they had been called names and spat upon last summer by a crowd protesting health care reform, their credibility and even their motives for walking through a hostile crowd were questioned by the right. One conservative talk-show host offered a reward for a video proving that the two men had been mistreated — essentially calling them liars.
When the NAACP's Benjamin Jealous urged the Tea Party to purge its ranks of racists, he was greeted with derision or accused of playing the race card — until a Tea Party leader's outburst proved him right.
For the moment, at least, the attempted assassination of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) and the accompanying massacre have focused mainstream attention on the verbal — and occasionally violent — excesses of the American political system. Within minutes of the alleged rampage by 22-year-old Jared Lee Loughner, the punditocracy began an inflamed debate on whether the brutal political dialogue of the last two years had played a role in instigating or nurturing an atmosphere that led to the shootings.
The sheriff of Arizona's Pima County, Clarence Dubnik, had no doubts: It's clear, "when you look at unbalanced people, how they respond to the vitriol that comes out of certain mouths about tearing down the government," he said. "The anger, the hatred, the bigotry that goes on in this country is getting to be outrageous."
Up to now, politicians, news commentators, talk-radio hosts and others who engage in political dialogue have tended to shrug off, tolerate and even sometimes instigate violent political language. News stories in the last few days have cataloged the excessive verbiage that has been a constant thread in political discussions in the last two years.
There were the brutal anti-Obama signs at Tea Party functions. There were those who came to political rallies armed. There were the bull's-eyes on Sarah Palin's maps and her provocative "Don't Retreat. Reload!" language. There was senatorial candidate Sharron Angle hinting that citizens should resort to their Second Amendment privileges (the right to bear arms) if they didn't like the outcome of elections or Supreme Court decisions.
Conservative Mark Thiessen, writing for the Washington Post, opined: "What is really outrageous is how quickly so many jumped at the opportunity to politicize this tragic shooting — blaming the Tea Party and conservative political rhetoric without a shred of evidence to back those claims." Even the editorial page of the Washington Post, owned by The Root's parent company, put a distance between cause and effect: "But metaphors don't kill people — guns kill people." The paper called for tighter gun-control laws.
Loughner may well turn out to be a deeply disturbed young man with no coherent political philosophy. But how assuredly can we separate his convoluted thinking from an environment of brutal language, threats, poisonous letters and warlike metaphors — yes, metaphors? Even if Loughner's alleged deadly act was not an explosive response to the fuse of excessive language, are we now assured that there are no other individuals out there convinced they must do something to stop that communist/socialist/Nazi/foreigner president and his minions from ruining our country? I doubt that the head of the U.S. Secret Service will let out a sigh of relief if Loughner's apparent lack of political acumen or purpose is confirmed.
It's not surprising that African-American leaders have been alarmed for some time about this level of nasty rhetoric. Black Americans were long the targets of horrific political violence in the name of democracy. We have a long list of leaders and allies, from Medgar Evers to Viola Liuzzo, from Martin Luther King Jr. to Robert Kennedy, who paid with their lives for their beliefs — and all in a climate of extremist language that gave legitimacy to acts cast as a means of saving America from the evil of integration or black empowerment. And that's why, even 40 years later, we are sensitive to the dangers of excessive language.
Joel Dreyfuss is the managing editor of The Root.