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Arizona rampage should make the US examine its political discourse

The shooting in Arizona marks a new quality in American political violence and could alter the nature of political life. Scholars hope that it will have a chilling effect on the polarized rhetoric in the US.

Well-wishers pay their respects at a makeshift memorial outside US Rep. Gabrielle Giffords' office in Tucson, Arizona

Americans are shocked by the carnage caused in Arizona

Violence in US society and politics is not a new phenomenon, but has consistently been a facet of American life. But while presidents and civic leaders from Abraham Lincoln to the Kennedy brothers, Martin Luther King and more recently Ronald Reagan have often been targets for assassins, the Arizona shooting spree represents a watershed moment for the US, say American politics experts.

"It is strangely different," Ronald Rapoport, professor of government at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia told Deutsche Welle. Rapoport says he still grapples with the shooting spree that targeted Democratic Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and left nine other people dead and 14 injured.

The shooting doesn't easily fit in the context of presidential assassinations or of other politically motivated attacks i.e. against abortion doctors, because Representative Giffords would seem an unlikely political target, says Rapoport:

"She is actually quite a moderate Democrat. This is not someone who is a firebrand on the left."

Americans are used to gun violence, says Wendy Schiller, a professor of political science at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. "But when somebody shoots a Congresswoman and then kills a nine-year-old kid, it's really quite stunning and it makes people stop and think about what's happening in politics in America."

Americans, adds Schiller, are still in shock after the rampage and trying to make sense of how and why this could happen.

Polarized politics

While political scientists interviewed by Deutsche Welle are similarly stunned by the incident and at a loss to fully explain the motives as well as the mental make-up of the shooter, the general picture of the political landscape in the US that emerges is one of a deeply polarized society which is reflected in its increasingly violent political discourse.

Picture of Rep. Giffords

The shooting of Rep. Giffords will have implications on the nature of US politics

"What's happened over the last 30 years or so is that the parties have become much more cohesive," argues Rapoport. "The Democratic Party has become more consistently liberal and less conservative and the Republican Party has become significantly more conservative, so that the moderates in each party are a very small group."

According to Rapoport, the political environment has turned so contentious and polarizing in recent years that someone with an inclination for violence in this environment might be pushed over the edge.

"Politics has been violent before, but this is the first time in at least 60 years that a member of Congress has been targeted in any kind of way," agrees Schiller. "I think things have gotten worse in the American political arena in terms of dialogue. Things that used to be unacceptable in terms of behavior toward elected officials are now acceptable."

What's more, adds Schiller, the economic crisis and high unemployment in the US has exacerbated the very violent and heated discussion about politics.

Antagonism rules

In the current political climate a high degree of incivility and personal attacks which are frequently expressed in heckling and in the unwillingness to even listen to an opponent's position are not an exception any more, but have become a trend, say the experts.

"I would say in 2011 in America, the left and the right are in close competition for the level of unacceptable language that they use and the attempt to vilify the opponent as evil, as the enemy, as somebody who is un-American," argues Schiller.

While the left, according to the experts, has caught up quickly with the uncivil us-against-them style of political communication of the right, the tendency toward the innuendo or the explicit use of violent rhetoric is greater on the conservative than the liberal side of the political spectrum.

"The political side that has to deliver now is more the political right, especially the Tea Party movement, because if you look at the political statements and election ads, it's mostly from the political right where you see violence in the discourse," says Christian Lammert, a visiting professor of US domestic politics at Berlin's Free University.

Former Alaska governor Sarah Palin during the kickoff of the nationwide Tea Party Express bus tour in Reno, Nevada, October 18, 2010

The heated rhetoric by the Tea Party movement has contributed to the hostile political climate in the US

Because gun rights are so important to conservatives this is often expressed in a reference to guns and crosshairs like Sarah Palin's controversial use of a gun scope in her call to vote Congresswoman Giffords out of office.

The political analysts interviewed by Deutsche Welle hope that the carnage in Arizona serves as turning point for the way political discourse is conducted in the US. They argue that the trend toward political polarization and vilification, not just by elected officials, but also by ordinary Americans must be halted. If not, further eruptions of violence wouldn't come as a huge surprise.

One key aspect of American political life may have already been transformed for good by the Arizona massacre. Until last weekend, US lawmakers and their constituents enjoyed a sort of grass-roots relationship. Unlike in many other countries, American citizens have always had unfettered and quick personal access to the local politicians representing them in Washington.

"Members of Congress in America are now frightened of violence against them in a way they have never been frightened before," says Schiller. "So this is something that is a real turning point for members of the House and Senate."

Author: Michael Knigge
Editor: Rob Mudge

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