People in a Pittsburgh fish market are pretty much like people anywhere else in North America. You can see them trying to figure out how fresh the cod — airlifted in from Iceland — is, and you can watch the children studying the blue crab in their salt-water tanks, the children slightly frightened and the crab impassive, armoured and blowing occasional bubbles.
Coffee shops there are like their compatriots anywhere else, the air full of the rich heavy smell of coffee, the clatter of plates, the winter fug of wet coats and gloves and their heavy woolen perfume.
Meet new people, and the kindness of individuals is the same as well. Since a snowstorm has closed the Carnegie Museum, a laughing parking lot attendant waves at the rows of virtually empty parking spots and says you can park “anywhere you like” for free.
At a racetrack casino, except for the pall of cigarette smoke, you could be in any Canadian casino from Vancouver to Halifax to Winnipeg, the machines singing their siren songs and the elderly patrons shuffling among the penny slots.
In other words, just ordinary people living ordinary lives.
Last week, in another part of the United States, a gunman arrived at a supermarket event held by Arizona congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and opened fire, killing six people and injuring 19, including Giffords, who was shot in the head. There are lots of factors: the mental state of the shooter, the availability of guns, the list goes on and on.
But one factor stuck out. Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik was blunt about something he felt was involved in the shootings, what he described as “the anger, the hatred, the bigotry that goes on in this country.”
Since then, he’s continued to raise the issue of those who “try to inflame the public 24 hours a day” with “rhetoric about hatred, mistrust, paranoia of how government operates.”
In return, Dupnik has been subjected to hatred, mistrust and paranoia from all sorts of commentators, right up to popular right-wing politician Sarah Palin, who criticized “irresponsible statements from people attempting to apportion blame.”
This, from the woman whose staff had put a rifle crosshairs over Giffords’ district on a website map as a person who should be targeted in future elections, and whose
personal slogan is “don’t retreat, instead reload.” (Interestingly, Giffords complained about the Palin gun sight at the time: “We’re on Sarah Palin’s targeted list, but the thing is that the way she has it depicted has the crosshairs of a gun sight over our district. … When people do that, they’ve got to realize there’s consequences to that action.”)
And that’s just the beginning: if Dupnik thought his words would calm the waters of political discourse, he was completely wrong.
Situation normal, because if the average American is pretty much like anyone else, what passes for political debate is anything but.
Is there a direct connection between the inflamed rhetoric of things like American talk radio and the actions of an Arizona gunman? Perhaps not.
It appears that the gunman, Jared Loughner, was the kind of person that even college classmates felt had the possibility of showing up at school with a weapon and shooting other students. His classmates made that complaint to the administration well before the shootings. Loughner’s mental state was considered precarious enough that he was tossed out of Pima Community College until he could have a mental health review.
So, Loughner is certainly not without issues.
But he’s not the only one with issues. What I can say from personal experience is that the political dialogue in the United States — especially the parts that make their way to daytime talk radio and evening television — are divisive, offensive and downright terrifying.
I remember sitting in a quiet Pittsburgh kitchen, listening to a radio host suggest, “Democrat lawyers — there should be a bounty on them, like wolves.”
Or that same kitchen again, where a radio host suggested that a group of Muslim defendants should be executed “for their names alone.”
I said it in a column last February: “But there’s little on the radio that isn’t completely seething with rage, and it can’t help but make you wonder if there isn’t plenty of other anger boiling away behind a nation’s closed doors.”
And think about this: suppose you are a person who believes in the idea that the government is involved in a grand conspiracy for whatever reason — mental disorder, personal bias, the list goes on. And suppose that day after day, your paranoia is reinforced by radio hosts who build their ratings by telling you how right you are about corruption and unseen power brokers and “government liars.”
If you did that on a small scale — repeatedly telling a mentally ill neighbour that your state congressman was to blame for everything that went wrong in his life, and that neighbour then took some kind of action, wouldn’t you share in the moral responsibility?
Of course you would.
People who subscribe to the mantra that “sticks and stone will break my bones, but words will never hurt me” are being wilfully blind.
Words are dangerous, too.
Shakespeare knew it way back in 1602 when he wrote “Othello”: ask yourself if Iago could claim if it was an “irresponsible statement” to “apportion blame” to him for his role in Desdemona’s death.
Russell Wangersky is The Telegram’s editorial page editor. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.