Moral imaginations, blood libel and the meaning of words

Hauntingly, verbal fallout from the Tucson massacre seems to have taken the insanity in circles. How should we then write and speak?

WORD WAR: The media watched with bated breath as Sarah Palin and Barack Obama delivered their messages on January 12th.


“What is government if words have no meaning?”

Such was the question that Jared Loughner asked Representative Gabrielle Giffords at an event in 2007. Unsatisfied by Giffords’ response (or warranted lack thereof), Loughner targeted her with an apparently vengeful fixation.

The budding thought processes of this anarchical philosopher-wannabe clearly had nothing to do with then-obscure Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck – nor did they have anything to do with the then-nonexistent Tea Party. According to a CBS poll, 57% of Americans agree that today’s political tone did not impact Loughner’s attack. 

It is unlikely that anyone would have seriously considered otherwise had Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik not blamed America’s political climate without evidence (disgracing his status as a law enforcement officer). Left-wing leaning media outlets subsequently seized Dupnik’s talking point with zeal and defined the debate in their favor.

However, just hours later, the primary sources that average citizens have access to via the internet flatly contradicted the politicization.

From online message boards to YouTube videos to the classroom, Loughner demonstrated himself to be a pathological riddler who was angry at the world for refusing to answer his intellectually dishonest questions. As Loughner’s incoherent ramblings and love of conspiracy spiraled downward to senseless bloodshed, King Solomon’s warning proved true - “the lips of a fool consume him; the beginning of his talking is folly and the end of it is wicked madness” (Ecclesiastes 10:12-13).

BLAME THE MADMAN: Jared Lee Loughner mug shot (Photo: AP Images)


In response to the tragedy, President Obama’s January 12th speech in Tucson was a bit better than I expected. It was tender, and for the most part above-board and presidential (it is unfortunate that the hooting and hollering disrupted the atmosphere). Obama even dared to go off-script to emphasize that political rhetoric – and “a simply lack of civility” – did not cause the Tucson massacre.

But the part that made me pause with concern was this peculiar statement by the president:

“Rather than pointing fingers or assigning blame, let us use this occasion to expand our moral imaginations”.

(Interestingly enough, Kirsten Powers, a fairly liberal commentator, was the first writer I came across who also noticed the oddity of the statement.)

In reality, we should assign blame to where blame is due – the murderer. One could argue that particular law enforcement bears some responsibility, considering that Loughner’s threat, in retrospect, was quite obvious. Yet ultimately, the truly guilty person in this case is Jared Loughner himself (and leaving it at that fact would have saved the media a great deal of trouble).

Expanding our “moral imaginations” – imagining evolving standards and moral relativism – certainly isn’t the answer to this situation. That sort of expansion makes room for more error, not more empathy.

Why is it that some in the media find it so hard to blame the murderer alone for murder?

The challenge can be traced to the inaccurate worldview that man is a basically good being whose sins are faults of his environment – his society – rather than himself. It is this Frankenstein worldview that genuinely desires to place more government control on the people in order to improve their actions and their lives. To those who think this way, “individual responsibility” and “smaller government” probably mistranslate as “anarchy” and “mass destruction” - hence the reason why they assume it is perfectly logical to link Loughner’s actions with conservative ideas. Common sense observation suggests otherwise, however.

In Sarah Palin’s message, “America’s Enduring Strength”, which was published on the morning of the Tucson memorial, she cited an appropriate quote from President Ronald Reagan:

“We must reject the idea that every time a law’s broken, society is guilty rather than the lawbreaker. It is time to restore the American precept that each individual is accountable for his actions.”

In light of the evidence we have about Loughner, this is an entirely reasonable precept. But for the Frankensteinians, words and the innocent people who spoke them became scapegoats in the monster’s place.

Like clockwork, the media continued its word-play tradition by zooming in on two words in this part of Palin’s message:

“But, especially within hours of a tragedy unfolding, journalists and pundits should not manufacture a blood libel that serves only to incite the very hatred and violence they purport to condemn. That is reprehensible.”

Blood libel! Doesn’t she know what that means?

Of course she does. The term originating from medieval false accusations of Jews (who were injustly accused of kidnapping and sacrificing children on Passover) aptly describes the shoddy accusations Palin and others have received for Loughner’s crime.

(By the way, Palin is now receiving an unprecedented number of death threats. Will the media tell us which group of people is to blame for that?)

But for some nonreason her words can’t just mean that - nothing that Palin says can possibly be taken rationally. There must be something perverse, something apocalyptic - something potentially devastating to humanity - in every slightest gesture Palin makes.

That is also how Loughner perceived everything that was said and done by Giffords, apparently.

Hauntingly, the verbal fallout from the Tucson massacre seems to have taken the insanity in circles. While the meaning of words is once again upon the dissection table, let us examine it with something Loughner was missing - a sound mind.

The school yard adage goes, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” It’s a lie, of course. Words – the conveyors of our ideas – can do far more than sticks and stones. The beautiful thrust of words can catapult someone to the highest office in the land. Words can also distort data, destroy relationships, damage reputations and sentence someone to life or death. The fact that words have meaning and power is indisputable (which reveals the absurdity of Loughner’s hypothetical question).

In a sense, it is words that develop and create a government. The words of the U.S. Constitution might be called our government’s “DNA” (a topic for a different article). During the January 5th Congressional reading of the Constitution, Rep. Giffords read aloud the First Amendment - the amendment that pertains to the value of political free speech:

What a highly symbolic moment!

How should we then write and speak?

We must first acknowledge the fact that great oratory and literature have been characterized by warrior rhetoric for millennia. That isn’t going to change. As Charles Krauthammer masterfully explained:

“Everyone uses warlike metaphors in describing politics. When Barack Obama said at a 2008 fundraiser in Philadelphia, “If they bring a knife to the fight, we bring a gun,” he was hardly inciting violence.

Why? Because fighting and warfare are the most routine of political metaphors. And for obvious reasons. Historically speaking, all democratic politics is a sublimation of the ancient route to power — military conquest. That’s why the language persists. That’s why we speak without any self-consciousness of such things as “battleground states” and “targeting” opponents. Indeed, the very word for an electoral contest — “campaign” — is an appropriation from warfare.”

The likes of Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann certainly weren’t the first to use battle imagery, and criticism of their use of such speech spotlights an obvious double standard (click here to see who put a bull’s eye on Rep. Giffords in 2008).

What I consider to be more disturbing than metaphorical rhetoric is a prominent media figure not being able to discern between a rhetorical and a literal call to arms. For instance, Chris Matthews recently said that Sarah Palin’s “don’t retreat, reload” phrase (which was actually invented by her father) was not a metaphor.

Come to think of it, Matthews has been metaphorically challenged for awhile. I still remember watching him interrogate Senator Zell Miller (D-GA) after the 2004 Republican National Convention. Matthews wanted to know if Miller REALLY thought that John Kerry intended to arm American troops with spitballs.

What would be good to see less of is thoroughly nasty and disrespectful hate spewings that don’t deserve to be called rhetoric. Michelle Malkin has an “illustrated primer” on this subject (not for the faint of heart or weak of stomach). Words should not be wasted on dishonesty and grossing each other out.

The mass communication mess that ensued after the Tucson massacre is a reminder of the precious value of being able to effectively and tastefully use words to describe things as they are. Condemning the use of political rhetoric is in itself a cheap ballistic missile that is set to backfire.

Oh dear, did I just use a violent metaphor?

Opponents of the Tea Party and conservative leaders would do well to focus on looking for facts instead of reading into rhetoric messages that just aren’t there.

Remember, a fear of subliminal conspiracy in words is part of what drove Jared Loughner insane.

Amanda Read is an unconventional scholar, a Southerner without an accent, a Christian who hasn’t been a churchgoer in 16 years and a college student who lives with eight younger siblings. A writer and artist, she blogs at and is the author of the historical drama screenplay The Crusading Chemist. Amanda is majoring in history and minoring in political science at Jacksonville State University.

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Amanda Read

Amanda Read is a columnist for the Communities at The Washington Times. Trained as a historian, skilled as a writer, and aspiring to be a filmmaker, Amanda investigates the ideas behind contemporary culture and politics. A professional writer and researcher, she is also a Christian homeschool graduate, unconventional college graduate, military daughter, and eldest of the nine Read children at Fair Hills Farm. Find more of her work at

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