Rep. Clyburn On Political Discourse

The attack on Democratic Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords at a meeting over the weekend has focused attention on the tenor of political discourse. Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-SC) suggests a connection between angry political rhetoric and the shooting. He offers his insight.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Gabrielle Giffords' brother-in-law, astronaut Scott Kelly, said this from the International Space Station today.

Commander SCOTT KELLY (International Space Station): These days, we're constantly reminded of the unspeakable acts of violence and damage we can inflict upon one another, not just with our actions but also with our irresponsible words.

SIEGEL: Our irresponsible words. As we've heard, there's been much discussion of the tone of current political discourse and the relationship between fighting words and violence.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

During the last election, for instance, Sarah Palin's political action committee posted an online map, locating 20 vulnerable House Democrats who voted for the health care overhaul. Each district, including that of Congresswoman Giffords, was denoted with a crosshairs symbol. Some say there is no causal relationship between campaign rhetoric like that and violence.

SIEGEL: Congressman James Clyburn of South Carolina, the third-ranking House Democrat, says there is. And he joins us now. Welcome to the program, Congressman.

Representative JAMES CLYBURN (Democrat, South Carolina): Thank you so much for having me.

SIEGEL: What do say to people who, based on what they know in this case of the man who's been arrested and charged with a crime, say this isn't politics, it's not about political discourse, this is about mental illness?

Rep. CLYBURN: Well, you know, I think that those of us who are armed with the gift of gab are responsible for what we say and how we say it. And when people hear things and feel that they can make a martyr out of themselves because of the discourse around the political arena, they sometimes react with ways that are socially unacceptable. But that does not absolve us.

SIEGEL: Beyond self-restraint and self-policing, if you will, would you support, say, a move that would extend the legal bar against threatening the president or the vice president, to any threats made against any member of Congress?

Rep. CLYBURN: Well, I think we reached the point where that may be necessary. And I understand such legislation is going to be introduced. And if it is, I will support it. I may also try to amend it, because I think we might look at whether or not we ought to make it a federal crime to carry a loaded gun within a certain distance of people who are participating in federal elections.

I thought it was very unseemly for President Obama to be appearing at events -and I believe it was in Arizona - and for people to go to the event with guns strapped to their sides. What's that all about? These symbols influence people and those people who are not mentally together may take it to a level which we did not intend.

SIEGEL: But is there a danger of going too far, in that political language is filled with images of war? A campaign is called a campaign because there were military campaigns before there were political campaigns. Some people say if we do this, we'll end up censoring people to an unfortunate degree.

Rep. CLYBURN: Well, I don't know that it's necessarily to an unfortunate degree. Would you say it is unfortunate restraint of free speech when a justice said it does not give us the right to yell fire in a crowded theater? I don't think so. And I do believe that people can tell the difference between the sight of a gun and an asterisk. If you want to target a political district, put an asterisk on it. The sight of a gun barrel, I think, carries a different connotation.

SIEGEL: Congressman Clyburn, I want to ask you to draw upon your own personal experience in your life. People are commonly saying that the political environment nationwide is today more vitriolic, more toxic than ever.

You're an African-American from South Carolina, and you came up at a time when a black man who asserted himself could face really serious consequence. And there was nothing unusual about death threats at that time. Does this really compare to, say, the 1960s in South Carolina?

Rep. CLYBURN: Well, during the 1960s, we saw the cattle prods. We did see some murders and they were very, very unfortunate. But we didn't have the Internet back then. We had restraint on speech back then. I came up in a time that the Fairness Doctrine did not allow media outlets to say things about a candidate or a person in public office without giving that person equal time to respond.

And I really believe that everybody needs to take a look at where we are pushing things, and may need to take a serious step back and evaluate what's going on here.

SIEGEL: Well, Congressman Clyburn, thank you very much for talking to us.

Rep. CLYBURN: Thank you so much for having me.

SIEGEL: That's Congressman James Clyburn, Democrat of South Carolina.

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