Tucson Shootings and Political Rhetoric

More from this show

State Representative John Kavanagh; John Loredo, former state lawmaker and political consultant; and Rudy Espino, ASU assistant professor of political science, discuss the possible connection (if any) between political rhetoric and violent acts, which some have blamed for the Tucson shootings.

Jose Cardenas: The shootings in Tuscon have sparked the debate over the connections if any between violent act and political rhetoric. It started hours after the shootings Saturday when Pima county sheriff Clarence Dupnik spoke at a news conference that heated talk could have motivated the alleged gunman.

Clarence Dupnik: When you look at unbalanced people, how they are -- how they respond to the vitriol that comes out of certain mouths about tearing down the government, the anger, the hatred, the bigotry that goes on in this country is getting to be outrageous.

Jose Cardenas: Should political rhetoric be toned down? With me to talk about this debate is state representative John Kavanagh, John Loredo, former state lawmaker and political consultant, and Rudy Espino, assistant professor with Arizona State University school of political science. I'd like all of your initial reactions to that piece that we had from sheriff and then we're going to get into more detail. But professor, your thoughts first.

Rudy Espino: Well, as an elected official, he certainly has a right to speak his mind and his constituents have a right to keep him in office or kick him out of office, depending on how they feel towards him. But with respect to him talking specifically about a heated political rhetoric, I think most people would agree that our rhetoric has gotten heated over the last couple years, when we talk about the tarp legislation, stimulus legislation, immigration debate here in Arizona. Health care reform. There have just been a lot of issues, and then you couple that with a recession. And people are really anxious and it's not surprising that we're hearing such heated rhetoric.

Jose Cardenas: Representative Kavanagh, was that a fair criticism?

John Kavanagh: Not at all, and I think he fell into the trap of premature speculation, and all that does is cloud the issues, cloud the truths and brings us further away from any kind of an understanding, which can eventually lead to some good policy that might reduce the incidents of these things in the future.

Jose Cardenas: John, your reactions to the sheriff's comments?

John Loredo: Well, I don't think there's anything dishonest about what he said. I think he expressed what a whole bunch of people in this state, in this country are feeling. So I don't see any problem with it, and quite Frankly, we don't know what happened with this young man. We don't know what he was exposed to, what he saw, what he heard. We simply don't know right now. And I would imagine that Sheriff Dupnik would have more insight into that than we would.

Jose Cardenas: Because we don't know it may have been irresponsible for the sheriff to try and make that connection?

John Loredo: Well, you know, I don't think it's irresponsible for the sheriff to say what a whole bunch of people are thinking anyway. We have gotten out of control in this state, in this country, and to be honest with you, I see a lot more people in this state of green within the -- agreeing than disagreeing.

Jose Cardenas: Professor, have you seen evidence in your work of a connection between the heated political rhetoric that the sheriff was commenting on, and that you made mention of, and these kinds of acts of violence?

Rudy Espino: It's hard to say. Such acts of violence are so rare, so to make a generalization that there is a connection, there's not a lot of data points. But there's certainly some anecdotal evidence. When we talk about the Oklahoma City bombing, in that case Timothy McVeigh certainly had a lot of anger towards the government. Now, whether Jared Loughner had that anger remains to be seen. But again, there's not a lot of data points thank goodness.

Jose Cardenas: Representative Kavanagh, whether there is a connection or not between what Jared Loughner did and the political rhetoric, isn't this a bit of a wake-up call? Shouldn't we so to speak be cleaning up our act?

John Kavanagh: I think we should be more civil towards each other. I think we should focus more on facts and logic when we discuss policy issues. But there's nothing wrong with people being impassioned, and there's nothing wrong with people expressing themselves. Occasionally some people go over the line, but in the case of this disturbed young man, I don't think it was anything he heard. From what we seem to know now, this was a severely disturbed person who wasn't right, wasn't left, was totally out of it, was schizophrenic and was a time bomb walking around waiting to go off. And that's really a problem, because that's really hard to prevent. It isn't like we can say, tone down the rhetoric, it isn't as we can -- as if we can hire more police or go after a group we know is targeting people. This was a person who went off the edge of because of what was inside of him, and not from something affecting him from the outside.

Jose Cardenas: Whether there's a connection or not, is this a wake-up call, at least the occasion to say, we're going to elevate the level of discourse, avoid the inflammatory rhetoric that accompanies issues such as immigration, gun control, and so forth?

John Kavanagh: Yeah. And that's fine, and we should have been doing that without this type of an extreme case. It's just not polite and it's not civil. Frankly, a lot of our constituents don't like when it we engage in that. So to the extent that it's just a good thing to do, yeah. But I don't think that there was any relationship between the type of medium level ViTRiOLE between political situation and this person going over the edge.

Jose Cardenas: Some of the people who have commented on this have said, look this, is nothing new, it's historic, you going back to the founding fathers and see some really horrible statements made there. This is always happened, it always will. And we shouldn't even be talking about. This we're focused on the wrong issue. What do you think?

John Loredo: I think anybody involved in politics and anybody from the outside can see that things have gotten much worse. There have been tremendous threats of violence all over the place. We never had people interrupting town halls screaming and yelling and making threats and having to be escorted out before. That was not commonplace. It is now. We didn't have people showing up to public rallies and public event was assault rifles. We do now. We didn't have people showing up waving swastika flag was machine guns and helmets and that type of thing, yelling at screaming obscenities at people. We do now. Things have gotten worse. They've gotten way out of hand, and the potential for violence is higher than it's ever been.

Jose Cardenas: But what can elected leaders do about that?

John Loredo: Not speak on behalf of those people. Not do things to try to inflame the situation. And not simply -- it's great to speak about the truth. It's great to be honest in politics. That's not what happens in politics. We see especially with the immigration debate, exaggeration of impact flat-out lies about the impact of immigration; those types of things, only serve to inflame the situation. And for most people out there, we have a rational filter that we can take in that information and say, well, there needs to be some reason here. But there are people like this young man who don't have that rational filter. And to people like that, they hear all of the exaggerations and the outrageous statements, and they act on it. They show up with the guns. They show up screaming and yelling and disrupting peaceful assembly. They react to that type of thing. So there is a responsibility for elected officials. Not to just throw whatever they want out there, they should be responsible about what they're saying.

Jose Cardenas: Representative Kavanagh, you talked about focusing on facts and stating your case in a civil manner. Is there any obligation on elected officials to call their fellow elected officials out when they don't do that, when they engage in inflammatory rhetoric? One example that john was referring to, the immigration debate. You have people such as senator Pearce, sending out emails saying, guaranteeing that passage of SB 1070 would reduce the number of rapes and molestations and reduce maiming and killings. Implicating a whole group of people and suggesting that if you're here unlawfully you're a criminal of the worst kind. Is there any obligation, A, not to engage in that rhetoric, and B, for the center's fellow Republicans to say, that's not acceptable?

John Kavanagh: Had senator Pearce said that most illegal immigrants were rapist and robbers and murderers, he should be called out. But he's never said that. He --

Jose Cardenas: what I just said to you is that it's an exact quote. And certainly the implication is that this is a reason to support immigration reform because these people are rapists, murderers, and molesters. And people who remain citizens.

John Kavanagh: I think he was talking about the sub criminal element of illegals. And I never took him to mean that all illegals are -- rapists

Jose Cardenas: is it something he should have avoided?

John Kavanagh: Perhaps if the media gave everybody more than a sound byte to further go into these issues, these types of situations wouldn't occur. But senator Pearce has been more vilified than vilifier, if you will. I've been to rallies where people have him and the governor on posters like Hitler, screaming he's a racist, and I've known the man for four years, and I haven't heard any racist comments from him. He's very dedicated to the rule of law. And nobody should demonize either side, and that's part of the problem. We don't deal with facts, we attack and paint the other side as evil because that makes us feel good, and we think we win favors of our side of the argument.

Jose Cardenas: The quote I was referring to wasn't a sound byte from some clip, it was an email that he sent out. Professor, representative Kavanagh, who is making a point, both sides are guilty of this kind of over-the-top rhetoric. So what's the solution?

Rudy Espino: Well, there's no immediate solution. I mean, we can call upon our elected officials and our more importantly our leaders in the media to tone down the rhetoric. And just any concern --

Jose Cardenas: any concern about inhibiting free speech?

Rudy Espino: Absolutely. We've got to be careful about that. In our constitution, our members of Congress are protected from the executive branch for speech they make on the house floor. I think that should also extend to the campaign arena. We don't want to step between what our representatives are wanting to say because constituents have an opportunity to kick them out or keep them in. And I think protecting that first amendment right is extremely important. So we walk a fine line here.

Jose Cardenas: John, the right certainly has no monopoly on violence and violent rhetoric. Not too long ago in the '60s and '70s you had the weather underground, and other groups like that on the left advocating violent overthrow of the government. So is this really any different, and what can we do about it?

John Loredo: You're talking 30, 40 years ago. Compared to what's happening now.

Jose Cardenas: You and I were both still alive then.

John Loredo: I was born in '67. You may be a little older than me. From what I've heard. But look, there is no incentive for politicians to tone down the over-the-top rhetoric. On the contrary, there is nothing but incentive to go over the top there. Is nothing but incentive to be inflammatory. There's nothing but incentive to exaggerate and flat-out lie. Because that's what works.

Jose Cardenas: What are the disincentives then? What can be done?

John Loredo: Nothing until the people of the state decide that they don't want this anymore. If they want to get back to the time when democrats and Republicans work together on tough issues to get real issues done. Like our water and our public education system. All of those things that people in prior years, we did it when I was at the capitol, we had bipartisan work groups all the time on issues. That doesn't happen now, and issues like immigration quite honestly are nothing more than a diversion. A diversion away from those core issues that people would not be very happy about if they saw what politician were doing.

Jose Cardenas: Let me touch very quickly on a couple of other things if we can. Arizona has already been in the national spotlight. Some would think in a very unfavorable way. This certainly doesn't help. Representative Kavanagh, you're in the legislature now, does this suggest we should maybe shy away from some of the more controversial pieces of legislation being considered? One of them being legislation that the sheriff Dupnik referred to regarding having University college faculty carry guns in the classroom that senator Harper is promote something.

John Kavanagh: I think the last thing we want to do is let one deranged person drive policy in the state of Arizona. I think we certainly are slowing down legislatively out of respect for the situation. I think we'll look more closely at any bills that relate to violence. Before we do any voting on them. But you can't let this deranged person change the entire legislative agenda. There are bills that need to be heard, good bills, bad bills --

Jose Cardenas: the concern is Arizona's image, so to the extent the legislature has control over what it puts forward, isn't that a consideration?

John Kavanagh: You know, I'm not prepared to say Arizona has a necessarily bad image. A lot of that circled around SB 1070, but the polls showed that nationwide you had 60, 70% for the bill nationwide. While certain media elites and certain celebrities might have had a good time bad mouth can us, nationwide polls though tremendous support and what happened here in Tuscon, they've had equally horrible and more horrible incidents in other parts of the country involving shooters like Columbine. These things happen, it's nothing that has to do with the state, it's just that a certain number of severe mentally ill people occasionally go off the deep end and the actual policy implication is we better start training our teachers, our law enforcement personnel, and other people who come in contact with these people frequently before they snap, how to identify them so we can use the current legal tools we have to try to diagnose them and stop them.

Jose Cardenas: We're almost out of time, professor, last question to you. On this topic from political science point of view, the image issue.

Rudy Espino: You know, I don't dispute the polls that Kavanagh was receiving to -- referring to, but there is a perception problem. That's something that we need to be concerned about. Because, yes, there are a majority of Arizonans according to Rasmussen poll were in favor of SB 1070, however, there are going to be economic implications for it. When an organization has an opportunity to go to Denver or Phoenix, organizations might be risk averse in deciding, we might have individuals within our organization that want to us boycott, and let's choose another location. That's something we want to be careful about as we move forward. And it really just goes back to stuff we start out with just speaking more carefully.

Jose Cardenas: And on that note we're going to have to end our speaking. Thank you all for joining us on "Horizonte."

John Kavanagh:State Representative;John Loredo: Former state lawmaker and political consultant; Rudy Espino:ASU Assistant Professor of Political Science;

airs Feb. 28

Desert Dreams: Celebrating Five Seasons in the Sonoran Desert

Barry Gibb singing (Bee Gees: In Our Own Time)
aired Feb. 24

Bee Gees: In Our Own Time

A cute little duckling with text reading: Arizona PBS Ducks in a Row Event
March 6

Getting Your Ducks in a Row to Avoid Conflict When You Are Gone

Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson and Willie Nelson
aired Feb. 23

The Highwaymen: Live at Nassau Coliseum

Subscribe to Arizona PBS Newsletters

STAY in touch
with azpbs.org!

Subscribe to Arizona PBS Newsletters: