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The role of harsh language in politics

Mark Mardell | 00:18 UK time, Tuesday, 11 January 2011

Barack and Michelle Obama

President Barack Obama will travel to Tucson for a memorial service on Wednesday. It will be an important moment in his presidency, and his words will be under scrutiny.

Few could criticise him so far for his reaction to the shooting. He stood alongside the First Lady on the White House lawn and led the nation in a minute's silence for those killed and wounded in Arizona. He can't afford to be accused of exploiting the tragedy for political gain and speaking afterwards instead attempted to be inspirational.

He said those in the crowd at the scene showed heroism: "Part of what I think that speaks to is the best of America, even in the face of such mindless violence."

He continued: "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."

Of course, whatever the president does is political, and remaining above the political fray and not entering the national debate about the role of harsh language in politics, is in itself a piece of positioning. He, as president, wants to been seen as a healer, and to recapture something he has lost since his election: the mantle of someone who can unify rather than divide.

His secretary of state was rather more bold. Talking to an audience in the United Arab Emirates, Hillary Clinton responded to a question about why all Arabs were blamed for 9/11 by saying that all countries had extremists and that a congresswoman in America had been shot by "an extremist".

"The extremists and their voices, the crazy voices that sometimes get on the TV, that's not who we are, that's not who you are, and what we have to do is get through that and make it clear that that doesn't represent either American or Arab ideas or opinions," she said.

It is increasingly clear that the man in custody accused of the killings was obsessed by the connection between grammar and government and had a grudge against the congresswoman for not answering to his satisfaction a question about this relationship.

While he mentions (in a YouTube video) the gold standard, the constitution, and a treasonous government, most of his concerns seem more to do with the odd writings of David Wynn Miller than the Tea Party. Miller's writings are very anti-government but are based on weird theories on the place of linguistics in law and are almost impenetrable rather than inflammatory. He's been quoted as saying he condemns the attack and all violence.

Still, the genie is out of the bottle. Many don't like it, and indeed many who post here think we shouldn't be talking about it. But there is a debate going on about the role of harsh language in politics. It is a debate that was waiting to happen.

The right's response is obvious on the internet, hesitant or absent at a senior national level, apart from House Speaker John Boehner, who said an attack on one who serves was an attack on all.

Many blogs and tweets, like those of the Fox star Glenn Beck, accuse liberals of "sad, transparent" attempts to "play politics". Constitutionally, or perhaps contractually, unable to avoid apocalyptic language he said that those with fame and fortune were in danger, he was in danger, you were in danger and things could go awry, America could end up like Israelis and Palestinians. But he didn't want that to happen and asked people to sign a pledge against violence... and against blaming others for the acts of madmen... and said those who believed in "peace and love will stand".

By contrast Trent Humphries, from the Tucson Tea Party, just seemed really sad and weary when I spoke to him. He told me that anyone who knew his group wouldn't blame them for creating a climate of hatred, and none of the local media had. "I would advise the national and international media to back off and let us heal, and get to grips with what happened in our neighbourhood," he said.

He said he had received abusive e-mails and that the local sheriffs had been in "to make sure we will be safe - there are messages in my inbox like 'we wish it was your family' and 'you have blood on your hands'".

But we have yet to hear from those who may aspire to lead the Republican Party. Mitt Romney is in Afghanistan. Sarah Palin has expressed sympathy but has otherwise not commented. As far as I know, none of the others on my long list has said anything. They may not want to enter the debate. They may choose not to say anything directly. But when they next open their mouths they will be part of the debate, by the very tone they adopt.


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