Hateful rhetoric
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2011, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

"Never let a good crisis go to waste." Those disturbing, yet realistic, words of political strategy are in play only days after the tragic murders and political assassination attempt in Arizona. Blame for the "crisis" has already been attributed to guns, to mental health apathy, to vitriolic rhetoric, and more.

Rep. Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona was targeted in a violent assassination attempt on Jan. 8. While she survived, six others lost their lives, including John Roll, chief judge of the U.S. District Court of Arizona, and a 9-year-old girl. In the midst of such a terrible tragedy, we all seek for answers in an attempt to make sense of the inexplicable.

Many politicians have seized the day, blaming the violence on one cause or another. Among those receiving blame for the murders is Sarah Palin. In 2010, her political action committee published a map of congressional districts with a bulls-eye placed over each of the key "battlegrounds." Giffords was one of those whose district was superimposed by a gun sight.

A symbol of the increasingly powerful tea party movement, Palin is known for speaking her mind and using combative rhetoric to spread the influence of her ideologies. Ironically, she now finds herself beneath a target of her own, put in place both by individuals trying to find meaning in the mayhem and politicians who simply cannot let a crisis go to waste.

Did Palin and her vitriolic rhetoric lead to the murderous spree of Jared Loughner? If her words were not the central catalyst, did they play a part? That question can — and likely will be — debated for a long time to come. But it is a misguided debate. The real question at play is not Palin and her political tactics, but the totality of our political disputes.

America is undergoing a transformation born of caustic rhetoric, oratory which may or may not have contributed to the heartrending massacre of Jan. 8. The real question is not whether in this instance hateful words led to hateful actions, but whether it has the potential to do so. Indeed, if the uncivil dialogue of not many years past becomes the status quo of American deliberations yet to come, it is hard to imagine a future where poisonous words do not lead to vicious undertakings.

There must be a change. Our civil discourse must become more — civil. Of course it is desirable that extreme partisanship give way to cooperative compromise. But if such cannot be the case, our political debates must be significantly toned down.

We love labels in this country. "He's a liberal," cries one. "She's a right-wing extremist," retorts another. We demonize people because of their political ideologies. But in the end, the hateful words which we spew at one other reveal far more about the dark side of our natures than whether we are for or against health care reform, or gun control, or abortion, or increased regulatory controls. It is not so much the debated issue which applies the true label, but the way in which we debate the issue.

Hillary Clinton was right. We shouldn't ever let a good crisis go to waste. In fact, we should all seize hold of this awful event and resolve to elevate the civility of our civil dialogue. To let this crisis go to waste is to ensure the advent of similar tragedies born of preventable hostilities.

Kurt Manwaring is pursuing a graduate degree in public administration at the University of Utah. He lives in Taylorsville.