Are We a Nation Doomed to be Violent?

Mark Trahant

Are we a nation doomed to be violent? How do we know when our political rhetoric has gone too far? How do we find or encourage a more civil discourse?

I was struck by the words of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. She objected to an advertisement last March by Sarah Palin: “The way that has it depicted has the crosshairs of a gun sight over our district,” Giffords said on MSNBC. “When people do that, they have got to realize there are consequences to that.”

She continued: “Chances are, you're going to have a couple of people, extremes on both sides, frankly, not just the Republican side. We have Democratic extreme activists as well. Most of our country is in the middle, but we do have these polarized parts of our parties that get really excited. And that's where again community leaders, not just the political leaders, all of us need to come together and say, there's a fine line here."

Words have consequences—and Giffords (and so many others) are innocent victims of those consequences. It wasn’t just painted targets but political campaign slogans of “lock and load” or “don't retreat, reload.”

I know the counter-argument. Don’t blame the rhetoric because the Tucson shooter was a disturbed young man. That may be. But that doesn’t change the weather; the political climate is threatening.

Just Google the words “Democrats are ...” Some 6 million entries pop up filling in that last word as being Marxists or a willingness “to rob us of our freedoms.” These words go beyond a simple political disagreement: We on the other side are wrong or evil. We listen to calls for us to be exorcised from the nation’s discourse.

The climate of the times does matter. It’s far more common to see violent acts infect our politics when people are unsettled. Instead of listening, learning, engaging in political debate, there’s an instant dismissal of those who disagree.

A target over a candidate is a stark reminder that we have forgotten how to agree to disagree. It’s the same with those stubborn refusals to accept the fact that President Obama won the election and is the legitimate leader of this democracy. Court rulings, documents, newspaper clippings—and common sense are discarded because they are convinced President Obama is not an American. That goes beyond civil discourse.

The very act that Rep. Giffords was engaged in at the time when she was shot should be the antidote to that idea. We need civil discussion more than ever. As the president put it: “It’s not surprising that today Gabby was doing what she always does—listening to the hopes and concerns of her neighbors. That is the essence of what our democracy is all about. That is why this is more than a tragedy for those involved. It is a tragedy for Arizona and a tragedy for our entire country.”

That is the essence of where we need to go as a nation. We need to encourage responsible free speech by condemning those words that go beyond civility. We need to remind ourselves that those who disagree are still Americans.

We are not doomed to be a violent nation. We can change that climate, remaking our political discourse. Let’s use this tragedy as the call to civility. When political rhetoric goes too far, say so. Seek out those disagree and praise them for their ideas, then politely dissent. We must praise those who agree to disagree. We need to make the politics of hate absolutely unacceptable.

Mark Trahant is a writer, speaker and Twitter poet. He is a member of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes and lives in Fort Hall, Idaho. Trahant’s recent book, “The Last Great Battle of the Indian Wars,” is the story of Sen. Henry Jackson and Forrest Gerard.

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jaytaber's picture
In providing amnesty for right-wing purveyors of bigotry, Obama followed in the footsteps of his philosophical mentor Ronald Reagan. Speaking on the Tucson massacre, President Obama, Attorney General Holder, and Homeland Security Director Napolitano provided religious bromides, but no hope for change. This cover-up of the social context by the top officials in public security and law enforcement amounted to a calculated detour to avoid their constitutional duties, as well as deter public discussion about what is happening in America. Rather than face down fascism, Obama is doing everything he can to placate fascism, and has done so since the inception of his administration. As FOX News and Christian Identity websites host advocates of murder day in and day out, without interference from federal regulatory or law enforcement agencies, Americans find they are on their own in battling the Christian Patriots unleashed on the targets these purveyors provide. That is the price of Obama's moral cowardice.
tmsyr11's picture
Selective amnesia Mark Trahant. There was a time when your reporting was based on factual information (most of time) but in recent it has just become out-right slanted news. All one has to do is google Sarah Palin and review the number of vile comments, rude statements and outright threats ('hate') to a live breathing individual. It appears 'hate' is UNacceptable as long as NO-ONE states uses hate against a Democratic operative. But yet there are no holds unbarred against any-one who staunchly opposes extremism. Your words, "We need to remind ourselves that those who disagree are still Americans" is just as applicable to those who oppose liberal extremism as your words are being used for liberal extremist. Besides, your words seem to be off-key considering the shooter has more mental-issues/medical issues and RIGHTS as a mental patient than politics. The shooter - Amy Bishop/Alabama was quietly push aside in TV news/reporting, the Fort Hood Massacre was handled lightly. Yet the no-holds barred of violent rhertoric, the Assination of a US President (GWBush), feel upon deaf ears to the TV news and to 'journalists' such as your self. These lines have to be taken down Mr. Trahant.
thechief's picture
hasn't the author heard obama? no more blaming. after seeing the suspects friends on 60 minutes last night i would have to think the suspect was not a tea party member.
countryboy's picture
WE as indigenous Nations on Turtle Island know our oral history well. Violence, greed, narcicissm, false and evil pride, dishonesty, trickery..these are character defects that many non-natives and Natives alike are born into or inherit. There is too much pollution of body, mind, spirit, and soul - we need a spiritual and social as well as historical cleansing to mention a few. It was all nice and good to honor this courageous lady and those who survived and journeyed to their Spirit World...I ask, were our ancestors honored and prayed for by an non-Native people when the great American and South American Holocausts started over 500 years ago? When our elderly women, men and children were murdered, butchered, hated and despised...were any flags flown at half mast or was there any honoring of them? This "modern world" we live beside and in cannot, will not change until "they" see who they really are!!
wanbli's picture
The institutions of this empire engenders violent, because its ideologies to exploit, desecrate through intimidation, fraud, manipulation, death, theft, hate, destruction and murder through Imperialist Genocide and the Christian Churches that have co-opted their faith and loyalty to Christ for the political, economical, and social favoritism from Empire is they're imperialist and unauthentic undemocratic history and attitudes of this illegal state, called the US and its unnatural desires, to life from the death of those they condemn unworthy or inhuman. Who gave the US and this false Christians any rights to murder for greed- through systematic institutionalized repression and oppressive political totalitarian in nature. What God gave them the right to steal land and kill our Red People's and they're intrinsic divine ordained consecrated rights to this Continent called, Turtle Island historical? Who is they're God anyway? He is no God, he is a dead God, he is a counterfeit, to a loving, caring, nurturing, and compassionate Creator. Do you think he is weak!!!! I promise Wanbli knows the power of his rightness and wisdom! The American People of Faith and those that don't have any faith in humanity, they better wake up very soon, and come to understand what red ground they have coveted. America your time is almost out!!!! You need First Nations to bail you out from something you cannot pay with money or earn on your own merits...! Just remember the Creator and Earth and all living and non living things is a lot easier to live with, then live with those that don't respect and cherish his love for us all then these manipulated empires of greed and perverted power and they're thieving international banks and speculators of profits and conquest. Wanbli 2011