The World from Berlin 'Political Radicalization in US Unworthy of a Democratic State'

The shootings over the weekend of a US congresswoman and 19 others in Arizona prompts German commentators to urge the Americans to tone down the rhetoric and take a step back. Some say Europeans, too, could learn a lesson from the violence in Tucson.

Families and supporters gather at the entrance of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords' office in Tucson to pay their respects and pray for her recovery.
DPA

Families and supporters gather at the entrance of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords' office in Tucson to pay their respects and pray for her recovery.


As the United States seeks to grapple with what role extreme political discourse may have played in Saturday's shootings in Tucson, German commentators called on the country to take a good, hard look at what words are thrown out in the national dialogue, and what their consequences may be.

The shooting of US Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and 19 others at a meet-and-greet event outside a grocery store in the southern Arizona city of Tucson stunned the US and made headlines across Germany over the weekend. In all, six people were killed, including a nine-year-old girl and a federal judge, and 14 were wounded. Giffords, who was shot at close range, remains in critical condition in a Tucson hospital following brain surgery. Doctors have removed a portion of her skull to allow for swelling of her brain.

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Photo Gallery: Anger and Mourning in Arizona
German readers have learned details about the record of the Democratic congresswoman, seen pull-out maps of the state she represents, and viewed images of a shocked US president. Most of the editorials in German papers Monday focused on the racheting up of political tensions in the United States, and lay responsibility at the feet of the Tea Party movement and figures at its helm, such as former Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin.

Charged with Attempted Assassination

On Sunday, US federal prosecutors charged the suspected shooter, Jared Lee Loughner, with attempting to assassinate a member of Congress, killing two federal employees, and attempting to kill two federal employees. Loughner will appear in a Phoenix, Arizona courtroom on Monday afternoon, and, according to CNN, will be defended by Judy Clarke, who previously defended the Unabomber, Theodore J. Kaczynski.

(Editor's note: One-time math professor Kacyznski pleaded guilty in 1998 to government charges related to his mail-bombing campaign that lasted almost 20 years, killed three people and injured 23 others. He is now serving a life sentence without parole in federal prison in Colorado.)

According to court documents, the Glock semi-automatic pistol used on Saturday was purchased legally by Loughner in November at a Tucson store. Those documents also show that evidence seized from Loughner's Tucson home included an envelope with the hand-written words "I planned ahead," "My assassination" and the name "Giffords."

In Arizona it is legal to carry a concealed weapon without a permit, and visitors to certain public locations can be greeted with signs asking them to leave their firearms at the door.

The state long has had a liberatarian streak, and has been fertile ground for the recently successful Tea Party movement. Arizona has also been at the forefront of a highly polarized immigration debate. Last April, the state approved one of the toughest immigration laws in the country, requiring immigrants to carry their alien registration documents at all times and targeting employers who knowingly hire illegal immigrants. Giffords, whose congressional district runs from Tucson to the Mexican border, was openly critical of the state's immigration law.

Former Republican candidate John McCain, a longtime advocate for immigration reform, had to move further to the right in a Republican primary last year to beat a popular opponent supported by the Tea Party movement. McCain relied on the support of his former running mate and Tea Party favorite Sarah Palin in order to win re-election to his U.S. Senate seat last fall.

For several German opinion makers, the most important lesson to come from the shootings was that words do matter.

The Financial Times Deutschland writes:

"No one who is politically active can claim that words are not blameworthy. After the attack on Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, US politics have become a matter of how much guilt can be assigned to words: At issue is whether or not the radicalization of the political debate played a role in the actions of what was likely a mentally disturbed lone actor."

"Regardless of the motives of the assassin, the debate is urgently needed. The political radicalization in the US has reached a point that is unworthy of a democratic state. More than any others, the members of the Tea Party movement made rhetoric of war into normal discourse ..."

"It speaks volumes that Tea Party members and former Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin removed crude imagery from their websites in a hurry on Saturday ..."

"And instead of shaking their heads about the US, Europeans should think about their own verbal arsenals. Right-wing populists, for example, are involved in turning Islam into the face of the enemy. Their words are also not without blame."

The conservative daily Die Welt writes:

"Giffords' name will be written in blood in the history of the United States. It was the first such incident since the attack on President Reagan almost 30 years ago. This murderous attack came from an atmosphere of discord and self-doubt, because America is experiencing the limits of its power on a daily basis, whether it be on distant fronts or with dissatisfaction at home. It has never been like this. There always was the motto: "Yes, we can." Today, widespread pessimism prevails, because of the financial crisis, and because of Iraq and Afghanistan, all lost battles ..."

"Sarah Palin put on her website Giffords' district with a target on it. What was meant metaphorically has become a bloody reality ... After the attack on Gabrielle Giffords, Americans are looking in a mirror that is blurred by hate and fear. That is not America. They need to ask themselves, and they are not alone, how to go about self-reconciliation."

The left-leaning Die Tageszeitung writes:

"America is appalled, and for the first time has stepped back. The attack in Tucson aimed a spotlight on how pure hatred has set the tone in the US. This happened, incidentally, before the rise of the Tea Party movement. The moment the first elected black president moved into the White House, the right began comparing him to Hitler, and calling him a socialist and the anti-Christ ..."

"The murders diminish Sarah Palin's chances of prevailing as a presidential candidate. Instead, moderate Republicans will profit politically. And they are exactly the people Obama needs to protect a country deeply mired in a financial and ideological crisis and steadfastly refusing reforms from extreme anti-democratic forces."

The center-left Süddeutsche Zeitung writes:

"First and foremost, the spokespeople of the right, such as Sarah Palin, have poisoned the atmosphere with aggressive verbiage. They routinely portray their political opponents as domestic enemies. They compare the resistance against the policies of a democratically elected president to the colonists' fight for independence from the British. They predict the demise of the nation, if the Democrats are not defeated."

"But above all, they use frivolous images of armed violence: After political setbacks they speak first of their need to 'reload.' They have even marked districts of their political opponents with crosshair targets on maps on their websites."

"America has been repeatedly afflicted with political violence: the assassinations of the Kennedy brothers and Martin Luther King, Jr. in the 1960s, and the gruesome attacks on Oklahoma City and in Atlanta during the Olympic games in the 1990s. After the tragedy in Tucson, the writing is on the wall again. One should hope that the leaders of the political right in the US recognize the deadly power words can really have. The time has come for them to stop. Otherwise, America might sink into a spiral of violence."

The left-leaning daily Berliner Zeitung writes:

"Giffords' district was literally targeted by her political opponents. Of course, Sarah Palin didn't grab her shotgun herself and fire on political opponents. Of course, the former governor of Alaska doesn't want to provoke violence. But she does that when she twitters brash slogans like 'reload!'"

"In a country where there are almost as many hand guns as people, there are also many crazy people. It may be that the shooter in Tucson was simply a disturbed and bloodthirsty young man. Maybe he never saw Glenn Beck spin yarns on TV about how he would like to shoot director Michael Moore and poison Democrat (and former speaker of the House) Nancy Pelosi. Perhaps on that black Saturday he would have shot any other politician."

"One hopes that the public discourse following the tragedy in Arizona would reflect on civic behavior. And those who want to save their homeland had better not take up arms."

-- Mary Beth Warner

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