This is what occurs when Bin Laden releases a video that stirs random extremists halfway around the globe to commit a bombing or shooting.
This is also the term for what Beck, O'Reilly, Hannity, and others do. And this is what led directly and predictably to a number of cases of ideologically-motivated murder similar to the Tucson shootings."
I encourage you to consider, as much as you may not want to consider it, that words and ideas have consequences .
Please do not misunderstand me or my intentions here. I am NOT calling for limitations of any kind on our freedom of speech. I am asking for civility and restraint. I am using what I think we all can agree is an American tragedy in Tucson as a "teaching and learning moment," a place for all of us to reflect on the very real, sometimes very dangerous relationship between what we choose to say or depict in images--what symbolic actions are repeated and repeated and repeated everyday in our political culture--and the outcomes that may accrue from people believing them or believing it is okay to do something because of them.
I know it is easier to deny that there is a link between what happened in Tucson and talk on the radio or images on a website or a metaphor that commentator uses, perhaps just thinking he or she is being clever. And yes, it was a gun that killed and injured people, not words. And yes, the shooter was clearly insane.
But none of these deflections from the reality of what happened, none of these easy denials that make us feel better because they allow us to pretend we aren't part of it, change the fact that we get up every day and walk into the world armed with what we believe. Nor does it change the fact that what we believe was shaped by words we read or heard about as well as the things we have seen and experienced visually. And that when you put all of those pieces of the puzzle that is you and me together in a world saturated by media, what you end up with a complicated, sometimes confusing, sometimes joyful, and sometimes scary world.
As John Stewart put it:
"I do think it's important to watch our rhetoric. I think it's a worthwhile goal not to conflate our political opponents with enemies if for no other reason than to draw a better distinction between the manifestos of paranoid madmen and what passes for acceptable political and pundit speak. It would be really nice if the ramblings of crazy people didn't in any way resemble how we actually talk to each other on teevee."
Nobody knows for sure what motivated Loughner. But what we do know is that regardless of what motivated him to mass murder and mayhem, at the time he was pulling that trigger he felt that what he was doing was the right thing to do. He didn't get to that dark place alone. No doubt there were many rhetorical and narrative influences that played a role in his illness, many ways in which the rough course of his life shaped by words and images helped him to make a kind of sense out of his experiences in ways that led him to do what he did. But words and images did influence him, one way or the other.
Because that is what it means to be a human. We are, all of us, people of the word.