What the Sheriff Said

Following the shootings in Tucson, Arizona, sheriff Clarence Dupnik made a surprisingly uncharacteristic statement to the press directly following the event:

“The anger, the hatred, the bigotry that goes on in this country is getting to be outrageous. And unfortunately, Arizona I think has become sort of the capital. We have become the mecca for prejudice and bigotry.”

He went on to elaborate on his comments at a later press conference:

“I think that when the rhetoric about hatred, about mistrust of government, about paranoia of how government operates, and to try to inflame the public on a daily basis, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, has impact on people, especially who are unbalanced personalities to begin with.”

This brought an avalanche of criticism of Dupnik, saying he had no right to speculate on the motive of the young man who did the shooting, that his statement went beyond the responsibilities of his office, etc. Criticism has come especially from the right.

Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) publicly responded to the sheriff’s statements:

“I didn’t really think that that had any part in a law enforcement briefing last night. It was speculation. I don’t think we should rush to speculate. I thought that the report that we just saw from Tucson seems to have it about right: We really don’t know what motivated this young person except to know he was very mentally unstable as was pointed out in the piece. It’s probably giving him too much credit to ascribe a coherent political philosophy to him. We just have to acknowledge that there are mentally unstable people in this country. Who knows what motivates them to do what they do? Then they commit terrible crimes like this.”

But if the sheriff of a county that he has lived in and served in for 8 consecutive terms isn’t allowed to speculate on what effects a prevailing atmosphere might have on the citizens under his care, who has? Has he no right to discuss what he considers to be contributory factors?

A senior Republican senator, speaking anonymously in order to freely discuss the tragedy, told POLITICO that the Giffords shooting should be taken as a “cautionary tale” by Republicans.

“There is a need for some reflection here – what is too far now?” said the senator. “What was too far when Oklahoma City happened is accepted now. There’s been a desensitizing. These town halls and cable TV and talk radio, everybody’s trying to outdo each other.”

What is unclear is why this GOP senator felt he had to speak anonymously. Where is this man’s integrity? Why does he feel unable to put his name to his statement in voicing what many Americans feel is patently obvious? Is it a betrayal of his party to question the tone of the political debate? Or is he worried someone is going to take a shot at him as well?

And then we have the infamous Rush Limbaugh, who obviously felt the sheriff’s comments were aimed at him – and rightly so. Mr. Limbaugh basically accuses the sheriff of holding responsibility for the shooters actions:

“We spend trillions of dollars on a safety net designed to help just this kind of deranged person and to make sure they don’t pose a threat to anybody in their immediate orbit.  Where was local law enforcement?  It might well be that the sheriff is out trying to dump on everybody else to absolve himself and his own office. Who knows?  But if I were the sheriff, I would be very careful here because he’s constructing defense scenarios for the kid and the legal team that might not bode well.”

goes on to say:

“Has anybody found any evidence what this Loughner guy listened to on the radio?  Has anybody found any evidence he listened to talk radio?  No.  Has anybody found any evidence that he watched Fox News?  No.  Has anybody found any evidence that he read Sarah Palin’s Facebook page — and if he did, what of it?  The guy listened to heavy metal music.  That’s what he was into: Heavy metal, and some of the anarchical stuff that you find in heavy metal and the devil worship or the, you know, weirdo occult religious stuff that you find on heavy metal.  Now, see if this doesn’t jog your memory.”

So although the sheriff is not allowed to speculate that the tone of political rhetoric might have been a contributory factor in setting the scene for this sort of tragedy, Mr. Limbaugh is allowed to speculate that ‘heavy metal music’ made him do it.

click image for larger version

And when it was pointed out to Sarah Palin’s team that her poster ‘targeting’ certain states was a very good example of the kind of violent imagery that was inhabiting the political debate, aide Rebecca Mansour said that the symbols on the poster weren’t gunsights, but surveyor’s marks. She went on to say, in a radio interview that it was ‘obscene’ to associate Palin’s graphics with this event.

What I find obscene is that there are so many people lacking integrity working in politics. It is perfectly proper and refreshingly honest for a sheriff to discuss what he considers to be factors contributing to a dangerous atmosphere. It’s shameful that a GOP senator cannot identify himself when suggesting that the level of violent rhetoric has become unmanageable. And it is patently ridiculous to insist that the graphics Sarah Palin was hosting on her website were innocent of any violent imagery. This from the woman who admonished people not to ‘retreat’ but to ‘reload.’

To say that what is pictured in that poster is not meant to imply gun sights (regardless of what dingbat was actually used) is like claiming that the swastika not Nazi symbolism but a Buddhist representation of the wheel of birth and rebirth.

It’s just stupid. And it reveals an assumption that the public is stupid too.  Of all the cultures in the world, America is more dept at reading the ‘text’ and semiotics of media than any other.