And the word of the month is: vitriol.
For this there is perhaps no one who deserves more credit than Clarence Dupnik, sheriff of Pima County, Ariz., who only hours after the Jan. 8 shooting rampage in Tucson addressed reporters, and through them a nation he found wanting. “And I think it’s time, as a country,” he said, “that we need to do a little soul-searching. Because I think it’s the vitriolic rhetoric that we hear day in and day out from people in the radio business and some people in the TV business, and what we see on TV and how our youngsters are being raised, that this has not become the nice United States of America that most of us grew up in. And I think it’s time that we did the soul searching.”
Some reporters, keen to the birth of a new star in the media cosmos, asked the sheriff to expand on his remarks, which he was only too happy to do. “When you look at unbalanced people,” he said, “how they respond to the vitriol that comes out of certain mouths about tearing down the government, 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.” (If I may be forgiven a brief tangent here, given that non-Muslims are forbidden from so much as entering the city, isn’t the Mecca for prejudice and bigotry really Mecca?)
And a media star was indeed born. After presumably searching his own soul and finding it pure, Dupnik continued to harp on this theme for the rest of the week, condemning political vitriol to anyone and everyone who strayed nearby long enough to offer him a camera and microphone. And there were lots of media outlets that, eager to apportion blame for the Tucson outrage on people other than the accused killer, offered both. Among these was MSNBC, that well known paragon of reasoned and restrained political debate.
Though one might argue about which of MSNBC’s hosts is the most vitriolic, I think the consensus among people who pay attention to such things is that it would be Keith Olbermann. The irony apparently lost on Sheriff Dupnik, he appeared on Olbermann’s Countdown program, where most evenings the host anoints someone, most often a conservative politician or media figure, as the “Worst Person in the World.”
So the cynic might be excused for suspecting that Sheriff Dupnik is troubled by vitriol only when it comes from the mouths of conservatives. But no matter. In Dupnik, Olbermann had a genuine Arizona law man, one at the very center of the Big Story, who was not only willing to appear on his program but was also compliant enough to echo the kind of leftist cant that during prime-time hours is MSNBC’s stock-in-trade.
“When you’re talking about a person who is unstable to begin with,” Dupnik told Olbermann on Jan. 10, “and they are motivated in some cases by the rhetoric that they hear and they see. And in general terms that’s why I say that I think that people who make a living preaching hate, to hate the government, to be angry at the government, to destroy the government, to do it to politicians, elected officials and so forth, have some responsibility. Even though it may be free speech, I don’t think free speech goes without some responsibility and some consequences.”
Never mind that neither Dupnik nor anyone else had produced even a shred of evidence that the accused shooter was motivated by or even paid attention to any of those conservative media voices the sheriff finds so objectionable. I didn’t have the opportunity to see all of Dupnik’s media appearances over the past week — there are only so many hours in a day, after all — so perhaps I missed it when some enterprising reporter asked him what should be done about that excessive vitriol.
And I was also eager to hear someone pose this hypothetical to Dupnik. Suppose that when the home of the accused shooter was searched, police discovered evidence that the man spent his days and nights reading Sarah Palin’s books, listening to conservative talk radio, and watching the Fox News Channel. Then what? Haul Governor Palin, Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and all the rest into the dock? Silence them on pain of imprisonment? Appoint a government monitor to check their public pronouncements for inordinate vitriol?
Dupnik surely knows, as any cop knows, that there are thousands upon thousands of people roaming the streets of America today whose grasp on reality, owing to this or that mental disorder, is tenuous at best. Spend some time on the beat with the police in any city you choose and you’ll come across so many crazy people you’ll soon be afraid to leave the house.
The man accused in the Tucson shooting is clearly mentally ill (though perhaps not insane, in a legal sense), so we may never know what inspired his deadly rampage. Are we to moderate our political discussions out of fear that someone similarly ill might be motivated to violence by something he heard on the radio or saw on television? What would Sheriff Dupnik say if today’s “Worst Person in the World” were to end up dead tomorrow at the hands of some deranged Keith Olbermann fan? And, playing counterfactual history for a moment, if on Jan. 7 the accused shooter had been picked up by the police and involuntarily hospitalized, wouldn’t he have found sympathy and support among the very same people now decrying the supposed lack of civility in our political discourse?
Near the end of Sheriff Dupnik’s Jan. 10 appearance on Countdown, Keith Olbermann posed a question: “As a sheriff, is it part of your job and part of your responsibility to assess a cultural environment that might increase the chances of injury and danger to your citizens?”
“I think that I have a legal responsibility to do that,” said Dupnik.
Frightening stuff from a man in his position. I think I’d rather take my chances with the nuts.