America's moral discernment is as scrambled as the brain of the alleged Tucson shooter.
No sooner had Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik decried "vitriolic rhetoric" than those who make a living off creating conflict through verbal bomb-throwing began defending themselves, Parham observes.
After Jared Lee Loughner allegedly killed six people and wounded 14 others in a shooting spree in Arizona, Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik addressed the national ethos surrounding the violence. He spoke about the "vitriolic rhetoric" against the government heard day in and day out on radio and TV.
No sooner had Dupnik made that observation than those who make a living off creating conflict through verbal bomb-throwing began defending themselves.
Rush Limbaugh weighed in. Newt Gingrich attacked the left and said Loughner was an atheist. Known for attending town hall meetings angry and armed, the Tea Party said don't blame us. Others used the "two wrongs make a right" argument: The other side makes extreme statements, too. Still others said the problem was a mentally ill man, not talk radio programs, not cable TV shows, not pundits who say hateful things.
But political talk radio and cable TV are places of hate speech:
· Glenn Beck spoke on his radio show about murdering Michael Moore and accused Moore of helping Hezbollah. He defended Sarah Palin, who is being criticized for having crosshairs over the congressional district that U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) represents.
· Rush Limbaugh accused Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) of being terrorists.
· Ann Coulter, a frequent guest on cable TV shows, told The New York Observer, "My only regret with Timothy McVeigh is he did not go to the New York Times building." She later clarified that she should have said, "after everyone had left the building except the editors and reporters."
Such speech and numerous other examples are morally irresponsible – and responsible for the hate-filled public square.
Thankfully, some leaders are saying it is time to tone down the rhetoric.
Fox News president Roger Ailes said both right and left use extreme rhetoric. He also said: "I told all of our guys, shut up, tone it down, make your argument intellectually. You don't have to do it with bombast. I hope the other side does that."
Long known for his inflammatory rhetoric, Pat Buchanan said conservatives needed to be careful.
On MSNBC's "Morning Joe," Buchanan said, "I'd give everybody the advice to tone down the rhetoric and to get away from the military or the armed metaphors."
Yet Sarah Palin bucked the emerging consensus that words matter. She issued a video statement Jan. 12 defending her map with crosshairs on Giffords' congressional district and asserting that society has no responsibility for individual behavior.
A few days after the shooting, adjunct philosophy professor Kent Slinker, one of Loughner's teachers at Pima Community College, said Loughner was someone "whose brains were scrambled."
Slinker observed that the Tucson shooter had thoughts "unrelated to anything in our world."
Our society does have some whose thoughts are "unrelated" to reality, and those thoughts disclose "scrambled" thinking.
When anti-gun control folk argue that "guns don't kill people – people kill people," they are disclosing scrambled moral thinking.
Other examples of scrambled thinking:
· "Cigarettes don't kill people – people kill people."
· "Alcohol doesn't kill people – people kill people."
· "Venomous talk doesn't kill people – people kill people."
One of the first stories in the Bible contains a question that challenges such moral junk: "Am I my brother's keeper?"
Goodwill people of faith know that they are keepers of the well-being of their brothers and sisters – individually and collectively.
If we act as our brother's keeper, we care that guns, cigarettes, alcohol and incendiary political talk can harm. People of good will then take actions to control access to guns, to reduce smoking, to stop drunken drivers and to discourage vitriol.
Unfortunately, too many in our society – many of whom light verbal fuses for a living – favor the ethic of Cain, who denied having any responsibility for the death of his brother.
Robert Parham is executive editor of EthicsDaily.com and executive director of its parent organization, the Baptist Center for Ethics.