As The Atlantic‘s James Fallows initially pointed out in the wake of the Arizona tragedy, shootings of political figures are by definition “political” but it’s worth remembering how “rarely the ‘politics’ of an assassination (or attempt) match up cleanly with the main issues for which a public figure has stood.” Going off the information reported so far, the accused is more anarchist than any shade of red or blue, but it’s still worth considering what Fallows brands “a time of extreme, implicitly violent political rhetoric and imagery.”

Richard Farmer has pointed to a speech delivered by former President Bill Clinton in Washington DC in April last year on the upcoming 15th anniversary of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. It’s depressingly pertinent:

… what we learned from Oklahoma City is not that we should gag each other or reduce our passion from the positions we hold — but that the words we use really do matter, because there’s this vast echo chamber and they go across space and they fall on the serious and the delirious alike. They fall on the connected and the unhinged alike. And I am not trying to muzzle anybody. But one of the things that the conservatives have always brought to the table in America is a reminder that no law can replace personal responsibility. And the more power you have and the more influence you have, the more responsibility you have.

… By all means, keep fighting. By all means, keep arguing. But remember words have consequences as much as actions do. And what we advocate commensurate with our position and responsibility, we have to take responsibility for.

The violence of language takes on new meaning in a country whose residents are armed to the hilt, but that doesn’t mean Clinton’s words aren’t relevant to the kind of political language that we were treated to in the election year that was 2010. So let’s kick off the new year with the hope, for what it’s worth, that political rhetoric, here and further afield, aspires to loftier heights …

Peter Fray

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