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Sticks and stones (and violent words and images) hurt

Alex Coccia | Monday, January 31, 2011

In the defense of her violent language that has been blamed for inciting the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Gifford, Sarah Palin said, “Acts of monstrous criminality stand on their own. They begin and end with the criminals who commit them, not collectively with all the citizens of a state, not with those who listen to talk radio, not with maps of swing districts used by both sides of the aisle, not with law-abiding citizens who respectfully exercise their First Amendment rights at campaign rallies, not with those who proudly voted in the last election.”

Legally, Palin is correct. The only one to be prosecuted for the Tucson, Ariz. shootings will be Jared Lee Loughner. But Palin’s insistence on the crime ending with the criminal is naive, a frightening attitude for one who is presumed to be planning a run for the presidency, and it illustrates a serious problem in politics today: the lack of foresight among politicians.

With such a position of influence and with an appeal to a large number of people in America who are impressed by her disposition, Sarah Palin has the responsibility to understand the possible consequences of language such as “Don’t retreat; instead reload.” The use of the crosshair symbols on her “Take back the 20” map to designate the politicians who had voted for health care reform in conservative districts was an enormous mistake. If it was not Sarah Palin’s mistake, it was the mistake of those who work for her. Columnists who have defended Sarah Palin on both her gun imagery and the use of the crosshairs have pointed out that the “crosshair” is a symbol used by the U.S. Geographic Survey to designate “Principal Points” on topographic maps. However, if that were the case, the time for Sarah Palin to disavow the “crosshairs” imagery and take down her map was spring 2010 rather than after the Tucson shooting. Since she failed to do that, how can we believe that she and her team intended the symbol on her map to be the marker used by the U.S. Geographic Survey? In fact, in a November 2010 tweet, Sarah Palin referred to the image as the “‘bullseye’ icon used 2 target the 20 Obamacare-lovin’ incumbent seats” (twitter.com/SarahPalinUSA/status/29677744457#). When I took a look at Sarah Palin’s “Take back the 20” map, the first thing I saw were the crosshairs as targets. Was this because I had just read an article about them being as such? Perhaps. However, I think most people would say, “Those look like crosshair targets,” rather than, “Those look like the markers designated by the U.S. to indicate ‘principal points’ on a map.”

I am not arguing that the language and images behind Sarah Palin’s midterm election campaign should have been censored externally, but that she should have moderated them herself. I believe in the First Amendment. However, I also believe that in any position of power, in any position in which one has influence over a group of people, government or otherwise, there exists the responsibility to act in ways that provide for the bolstering of a society in the best interest of all. Violent language and graphic images that allude to taking up arms are not parts of the positions of power. The use of what Nobel Prize economist Paul Krugman calls “eliminationist rhetoric” is counterproductive for society as a whole. If politicians like Sarah Palin claim to have the best interest of the country and the future of the country at heart, then the use of violent language which requires an eight-minute public justification makes the claim unbelievable.

No, Sarah Palin. Criminal acts do not begin and end with just the criminal. They are the immediate responsibility of the one who commits them, but they must also be viewed within the context of society and those who lead it. Crime will be more common in a society that makes it seem as though such actions can be tolerated. A better society, one in which crime will still exist but in which it is clearly not tolerated, begins early on with the sentiment, “I will not raise my child to kill your child.” Politicians should use the same logic. Violence and words insinuating violence cannot be a part of America’s political system, and the line should be drawn now. With great power, comes great responsibility. For Sarah Palin and all politicians, it is the responsibility to influence those who listen to them to make America greater, not more violent.

Alex Coccia is a freshman. He can be contacted at acoccia@nd.edu

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.