You are hereHuffington Post: Narrative Magazine, Debra Hughes's 'The Tucson Shootings: Words and Deeds': Narrative Magazine's Friday Feature

Huffington Post: Narrative Magazine, Debra Hughes's 'The Tucson Shootings: Words and Deeds': Narrative Magazine's Friday Feature

Narrative Magazine: The January 8, 2011, shooting in front of a grocery store in Tucson, Arizona, in which six people died and thirteen were wounded, including Congresswoman Gabriel Giffords, generated heated debate on the rhetoric of violence that has become commonplace in American media. Debra Hughes, a writer who has made Tucson her home, frames the current public debate within the history of Arizona's deeply divided community.

January 28, 2011- The night of the mass shooting in Tucson, a downtown art gallery hosted an already scheduled reception for an exhibition, Flesh · Bone · Spirit. The images on display from François Robert's photography series Stop the Violence were of human bones arranged in the shapes of a handgun, grenade, knife, Kalashnikov, fighter jet, and other symbols of violence, all starkly set on black backgrounds. Those images confronted viewers with their own heavy feelings. That morning six people had been killed and thirteen wounded in the shooting rampage at Gabrielle Giffords's political rally at a local Safeway. Jared Lee Loughner had tried to assassinate the Arizona congresswoman, using a Glock 19 semiautomatic pistol and firing thirty-one rounds into the crowd in about fifteen seconds.

The shooting took place at a small shopping center in my neighborhood. I wasn't there that morning, though my family and I easily could have been. Our bank is there, along with the stores where we mail our packages, buy pastries, toothpaste, and paper towels, and where we regularly run errands. That morning people had gathered to hear what their state representative had to say. She called the event "Congress at Your Corner."

In the afternoon, at a press conference addressing the violence, Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik, a seventy-five-year-old with the sagging cheeks and drooping eyes of a bulldog, spoke his mind. "People tend to pooh-pooh this business about all the vitriol that we hear inflaming the American public by people who make a living off of doing that." He was alluding to talk-show hosts and politicians who use inflammatory rhetoric, and he added that the effect of their words should not be discounted. "That may be free speech, but it's not without consequences." Almost immediately a heated public debate began over whether or not political rhetoric had spurred Jared Lee Loughner to kill.

Tucson forensic psychologist Dr. Gary Perrin, a professional familiar with violent crime, was asked if a mentally disturbed person might distort strong messages into a belief that violent acts are noble. Perrin replied, "In these recent days, and I mean the past few years, rhetoric has increased. Words are powerful, and certainly words can make a [mentally unstable] person act in a certain way." But he emphasized that violent acts are "situational, and many things contribute. Words can be one of the factors."

As forensic specialists pieced together the factors that provoked Loughner, the debate about political vitriol flourished. Within a week of the shooting a Google search produced 55 million results about the event, including myriad bloggers arguing over free speech. Steven Colbert, on his Comedy Central TV show, aired a segment entitled "The Word: Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Angriness," in which he deadpanned, "If incendiary rhetoric isn't connected to the Arizona tragedy, it logically follows that it must be good."

The night before Gabrielle Giffords was shot, she sent an email offering congratulations to Kentucky Secretary of State Trey Grayson, a Republican, after he was named director of Harvard University's Institute of Politics. In it she wrote, "After you get settled, I would love to talk about what we can do to promote centrism and moderation. I am one of twelve Democrats in a GOP district (the only woman) and we need to figure out how to tone our rhetoric and partisanship down."

Here, in Arizona's Eighth Congressional District, set among picturesque desert scenes of saguaro, mesquite, and towering mountain ranges, factional tensions run high. The district shares a long stretch of borderland with Mexico, and immigration issues get as hot as the summer temperatures. This past year Arizona passed the country's toughest statute on immigration reform. Town Hall meetings have the reputation of turning into cauldrons of polarized debate about other issues as well, such as government spending, health care, and guns.



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