Monday, July 28, 2008

On Responsibility

The man who killed two people in a Tennessee Unitarian Church appears to have hated liberals:

Adkisson targeted the church, Still wrote in the document obtained by WBIR-TV, Channel 10, "because of its liberal teachings and his belief that all liberals should be killed because they were ruining the country, and that he felt that the Democrats had tied his country's hands in the war on terror and they had ruined every institution in America with the aid of media outlets."

Adkisson told Still that "he could not get to the leaders of the liberal movement that he would then target those that had voted them in to office."

Adkisson told officers he left the house unlocked for them because "he expected to be killed during the assault."

Inside the house, officers found "Liberalism is a Mental Health Disorder" by radio talk show host Michael Savage, "Let Freedom Ring" by talk show host Sean Hannity, and "The O'Reilly Factor," by television talk show host Bill O'Reilly.

It could be that he also had books by Gandhi, say, on his shelves, and in any case it is impossible to measure the impact political hate talk shows have. But they are hate talk shows. Where did Adkisson learn his hatred? How many liberals did he know in real life? How much of his hatred was built on listening to right wing talk shows? And what responsibility do those talk show hosts have who are fueling the flames of political anger? Should they consider the fact that mentally unstable individuals might follow their words in the search for a suitable target for their incoherent anger?

These are not just questions to conservative talk show hosts, mind you, though it is those shows which skate closest to advocating actual violence. Even tame phrases like "culture wars" are ultimately violent ones, something that can slowly make you see the symbolic opposition as the real enemy, as subhuman and nasty and in need of killing. Accusations of treason, something that I read frequently against the American left, are another example of this worrisome trend.

But although the right is more likely to engage in violent language the left isn't completely free of it, either. Mostly this is in response to the changes the Gingrich "revolution" caused in conservative political framing, and I'm not sure what alternatives the left really has. It can either answer in some equally strong manner or it can roll over and play dead. There must be a third way. Perhaps Obama will show us what that is.

In the meantime, I hope that political pundits spend some time thinking about the impact they have and about the moral responsibility that goes with that impact.