Congress Closes Shop For The Week
MICHEL MARTIN, Host:
This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.
We're going to talk more about those tragic events in Tucson over the weekend. In the wake of that shooting that claimed six lives and injured 14 others, President Obama said yesterday that he hoped Arizona and the nation as a whole could begin to heal.
BARACK OBAMA: But I think it's going to be important, I think, for the country as a whole, as well as the people of Arizona to feel as if we are speaking directly to our sense of loss, but also speaking to our hopes for the future and how out of this tragedy we can come together as a stronger nation.
MARTIN: But as the country tries to move on, the question still must be asked, why did this happen and what should we do about it? And while motives for the alleged gunman remain a mystery, many people, including the Pima County sheriff, Clarence Dupnik, have noted that this tragic event has come at a time when political discourse is especially heated.
We'll talk very specifically about the discourse of the day with the chair of one of the Tea Party groups, the Tea Party Express, and with the head of a group at the Southern Poverty Law Center that tracks hate speech and hate crimes and we'll ask them what they think the line is between strong opinions and inappropriate rhetoric.
But first, we turn to two regular contributors to this program to speak more broadly about how the political world is responding. And we'll also talk about what to expect in Congress as they get down to business next week.
With us today, Cynthia Tucker, a Pulitzer Prize winning columnist and blogger for the Atlanta-Journal Constitution, and Mary Kate Cary, former speechwriter for President George H.W. Bush and a columnist and blogger for U.S. News and World Report. And welcome back to you both. Thank you for joining us. Happy New Year.
CYNTHIA TUCKER: Thanks for having us.
MARY KATE CARY: Thanks, Michel.
MARTIN: And, Cynthia, I do want to say that I do know that congratulations are in order. Your alma mater, Auburn, came out on top in the Bowl championship last night.
TUCKER: War eagle.
MARTIN: OK. So, that being said, I did want to ask if you think the weekend's events will alter what some have called a very - a particularly tense, you know, political and partisan environment right now. And I'm particularly interested in what you have to say about this as a Southerner, having lived through some very difficult days, where there was a lot of just, you know, outright hatred, you know, in the air. Do you think that this is one of those defining moments?
TUCKER: Well, I don't think that anything about this very unfortunate shooting spree in Arizona is going to change our political discourse over the long term, Michel. I think that we're seeing something of a temporary rhetorical ceasefire, if you will, especially among members of Congress. They've been stunned by an attack on one of their own and several other people, and they've been willing to soften their rhetoric, at least temporarily.
And I think that House Speaker John Boehner is unlikely to be the kind of fire brand that Newt Gingrich was anyway. Having said that, I don't think that we see the worst offenders in terms of the most venomous and vitriolic rhetoric in Congress anyway.
Congress certainly has its share of offenders, but I think the worst actors are on talk radio, on television, news cable shows, on various media outlets. And they have been as vitriolic and venomous as ever in pointing fingers over what has transpired over the last several days is a whole lot of vitriol in determining whether or not vitriol was to blame for the weekend's atrocity.
MARTIN: Well, you know, to that point, though, you know, a lot of people have made the point that the worst offenders tend not to get elected, but some of them come awfully close. And one example that some site as Sarah Palin, a vice presidential candidate, for her past use of incendiary language, her kind of pointing the finger at people. And like her famous don't retreat, reload tweet, and putting Representative Giffords, among others, in the crosshairs of a target list of political foes. And one of her spokespersons has since said that, no, that was a survey. It wasn't, you know, gun sites.
KATE CARY: Come on.
MARTIN: It was surveying. But Mary Kate Cary, I mean, does that even pass the laugh test?
KATE CARY: I didn't buy that one. No. I don't think anybody bought that line from them.
The - when you talk about this line between inappropriate things and energizing your base, it does seem to me, I agree with you, Cynthia, that there was a lot of inappropriate things said, starting with the sheriff, who immediately took the spotlight off of the victims, off of these amazing heroes, bystanders who rushed in, took it off the mental illness of this deranged man, and immediately broadened it to a discussion involving people who really had nothing to do with it.
I think that the politicians watching all this, because what immediately happened was all these people from cable started jumping in. Paul Krugman in The New York Times, Keith Olbermann, Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, they all jumped in. And the lessons to me, for both sides, on the left, it seems to me, you cannot have the left making their default response to violence be to blame the right. Mayor Bloomberg did it right after the...
MARTIN: You really think the Pima County sheriff is of the left?
KATE CARY: He's a Democrat.
MARTIN: He says he's a Democrat?
KATE CARY: Yeah. Well, I mean, I just think there's a broader...
MARTIN: Well, I mean...
KATE CARY: Krugman jumped right in, too. I just think there's a - you can't - every time there's a shooter, you can't say, he must be a Tea Partier, which is what Bloomberg did in New York. And so there's a pattern starting and I think that's got to stop. And I think that that becomes irresponsible if the left keeps doing that.
On the right, it seems what you're talking about, Sarah Palin, her mistake was in not having the political judgment to realize six months ago that if she put those crosshairs on there and she said things like reload, the minute some violence broke out, she would be blamed. And I thought it at the time and I didn't say anything because I thought, don't give her any more publicity than she needs. But maybe it's time to start saying, no, that's not acceptable.
And I think that in the last 24 hours, some of the more reasonable voices have come forward. There is more attention to the victims. The memorial services are tomorrow. The president's going to that. Boehner called off everything in the House. The elected officials have been quite good.
MARTIN: I want to ask a little bit, Mary Kate, about your point that you think that, you know, the left is jumping on this. But is the right really different when the Fort Hood shootings occurred and you had a Muslim-American psychiatrist who did this awful thing. You know, there are people on the right who say, well, this is about Muslim radicalization.
KATE CARY: Right.
MARTIN: And so, why is that any different as opposed to saying that this is about a man who is mentally ill or maybe it's about systems. I mean, or is it about - you know what I mean? So, is it really - don't we do both things? We look at the individual and then don't we look at broader systems that...
KATE CARY: There's something hardwired in us that wants to search for meaning in an inexplicable situation. And I think that's the mistake both sides make, trying to assign a larger story to something that's just inexplicable, senseless, mental illness, whatever you want to call that, of people snapping for no reason.
TUCKER: Having said that, you know, I agree with Mary Kate that there is, as far as we can tell, there is absolutely no reason to believe that the suspect was motivated by politics, by Sarah Palin, by anything else. However, I think it bodes well for all of our...
MARTIN: Well, I don't know. I mean, why not? I mean it's sort of his kind of - his kind of weird interpretations of constitutionalism. I mean when he was ejected from his class, one of his math teachers, you know, said, look, you have to - you're making other students uncomfortable. You're making inappropriate outbursts. And he claimed that his First Amendment rights were being attacked. I mean, so...
TUCKER: Well, I think we have a very troubled guy who was delusional. And so...
KATE CARY: He's more like the Virginia Tech guy.
TUCKER: I'm not sure that his thinking was that clear or that focused. Having said that, I think it is irresponsible for public officials to use violent marshal imagery period. And there have been Republicans who did that. There have been Democrats who did that, Joe Manchin running for Senate in West Virginia did that. And so, I think it would be good for all of our elected officials to put that aside.
MARTIN: But I understand what you're saying about sort of violent imagery, telling people that, you know, maybe they need to get their, you know, like, Sharron Angle in Nevada said that she hope people wouldn't pursue Second Amendment solutions, sort of implying that if you didn't vote for her, then, you know, that was your only recourse. And noteworthy, she was not elected.
But the question I have is, what's the line between people expressing what they believe is kind of a serious concern about what they think is a serious issue and demonizing people? And to that end, one issue that's getting some attention, incoming House homeland security committee chair, Peter King, has expressed interest in holding hearings concerning the, quote, "radicalization of the American-Muslim community and homegrown terrorism." And this is a short clip of what he had to say on Fox last month.
PETER KING: I believe it's important to have this investigation on radicalization of the Muslim community. We've seen what happened in England. We know that al-Qaida is trying to recruit people over here, such as they did with the subway bombing in New York last year, the attempted subway bombing, Times Square bombing. These are all people living legally in the United States.
MARTIN: And now, here of course is Congressman Keith Ellison. He was the first Muslim elected to Congress, first Muslim-American elected to Congress, and this is what he had to say at the end of December after the piece about Congressman King announcing his intentions in Newsday.
KEITH ELLISON: We all need to be concerned about violent radicalization, but just against Muslims, against anybody. What about the guy who flew the plane into the IRS? What about the guy who killed a guard at the Holocaust museum? You know, it is worthwhile to find out what turns somebody into a normal citizen into a violent radical. But to say we're going to do it only against this community, if we're going to change the debate to vilify this community is very scary and clearly has a McCarthy-istic implications.
MARTIN: So, Mary Kate, where is the line between expressing what you believe is a legitimate public policy concern and then crossing the line into, you know, demonizing people, targeting people? I mean, that's the - that seems to be, you know, the question. You're saying - as a former speechwriter, I'm particularly interested in your perspective on this. Is it a matter of personalizing it?
KATE CARY: Some of it's personalization. Some of it is taking disagreement and turning it into the equivalent of hatred. And people can disagree and have civil discourse, agree to disagree, without it becoming, you know, a bunch of bomb-throwing rhetoric.
So I think, you know, what I did last night was I read Peter King's op-ed in Newsday where he explains his rationalization here. And what he has seen is the success of the counterterrorism movement across the pond, you know, overseas, has led to more homegrown terrorism because they're not overseas, so they're starting here. And I think it's a legitimate concern for the head of homeland security committee to look into what's the biggest threat against the United States, Muslim, you know, extremist terrorism.
Over the last 15 months he points to the New York subway bomb attempt, which was foiled, Fort Hood, the Time Square guy, incidents in Chicago, Texas, Virginia, Portland, Oregon. There's been a lot lately. So I think it's legitimate to say, what takes somebody from a law-abiding citizen and turns into a radical?
MARTIN: We're going to hear from Cynthia on this question, but we need to take a short break and when we come back, we'll have more with Cynthia Tucker, Pulitzer Prize winning columnist and blogger for the Atlanta-Journal Constitution. And that wasn't who was just speaking. That was Mary Kate Cary, a columnist and blogger for U.S. News and World Report. She's also a former speechwriter for President George H.W. Bush. They're both kind enough to stick with us for a few more minutes in our Washington, D.C. studio.
I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Please stay with us.
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