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Ashbrook On Arizona And National Discourse

Sarah Wendel, left, and Brett Wolf join a vigil on Sunday at the U.S. Capitol in support of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., and the victims of Saturday's shooting in Tucson. (Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP)

Sarah Wendel, left, and Brett Wolf join a vigil on Sunday at the U.S. Capitol in support of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., and the victims of Saturday's shooting in Tucson. (Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP)

Rough-and-tumble political discourse is nothing new for Boston, but the weekend shooting spree in Arizona has the whole country talking about the tone of our national debates and whether it has reached a fever pitch — feverish enough to inspire violence.

WBUR’s Tom Ashbrook, host of On Point, has been wondering just that. So keenly, in fact, he took the unusual (for him) step on Sunday of writing and posting a commentary – Them, Us, We – and Tucson:

No matter what your politics are, you have to ask why Sarah Palin drew a gun sight around Gabby Gifford’s district. Why she chose to say, on the biggest of stages, “Don’t retreat. Reload.” Reload what? For what? Democracy is not a place to toy with violence. Fundamental respect is precious. Real work on the nation’s problems is hard. We have to move forward together.

Today on Radio Boston, we turn the microphone on Ashbrook. He explains why he thinks the national debate has become poisonous and what one young man’s actions in Arizona have to do with it.

What do you think? Join the conversation in the comments or on Twitter, @RadioBoston.


  • Tom Ashbrook, host, On Point

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  • Aaron

    I would like Tom to comment on this excerpt from Rolling Stone writer Matt Taibbi’s recent piece about Rep. John Boehner;

    ‘Another Ohio Democrat, Steve Driehaus, clashed repeatedly with Boehner before losing his seat in the midterm elections. After Boehner suggested that by voting for Obamacare, Driehaus “may be a dead man” and “can’t go home to the west side of Cincinnati” because “the Catholics will run him out of town,” Driehaus began receiving death threats, and a right-wing website published directions to his house. Driehaus says he approached Boehner on the floor and confronted him.

    “I didn’t think it was funny at all,” Driehaus says. “I’ve got three little kids and a wife. I said to him, ‘John, this is bullshit, and way out of bounds. For you to say something like that is wildly irresponsible.’”

    Driehaus is quick to point out that he doesn’t think Boehner meant to urge anyone to violence. “But it’s not about what he intended — it’s about how the least rational person in my district takes it. We run into some crazy people in this line of work.”

    Driehaus says Boehner was “taken aback” when confronted on the floor, but never actually said he was sorry: “He said something along the lines of, ‘You know that’s not what I meant.’ But he didn’t apologize.”‘

    It’s obvious that the rhetoric that feeds the extreme-right’s antipathy toward government goes all the way to the top. This is not just limited to “outsiders” like Palin, Bachmann and Angle. The rhetoric flows from the conservative establishment as well.


    Jamaica Plain

  • http://www.capewomenonline.com Nickey Burnell

    Dear Meghna,

    I was thrilled to hear you have Tom on your show this afternoon to continue this crucial conversation about the horrific shooting in Arizona. I just listened to On Point and always appreciate his level-headed facilitiation of difficult issues.

    I want to add my voice to the conversation – I agree that we all need to take a HUGE step back and really sit with the reality of the moment – a young woman is in a medically induced coma, machines breathing for her, unable to communicate in any way the fear and terror she is feeling. I know this because I’ve been there – when they turn down your anaesthesia to do a “check-in” the pain is excruciating and you are helpless to let anyone know you can feel it.

    Having said that, my own brush with death eventually became a positive, transformational experience. I would love this moment to become a transformational experience for our country as we refocus our efforts to alter the tone of our discourse. The crosshairs comment chilled me when I first heard about it. As an Obama campaigner, I was on the receiving end of racism, bigotry and petty intimidation – neighbors of mine dumped beer cans on my lawn for over a year during the ’08 campaign. This began again during the 2010 elections. I decided to hang the cans on the twigs of my trees to let everyone know I was not intimidated, but rather created art out of their trash. I am, however, beginning to feel intimidated now as I hear the violent rhetoric spewing over the airwaves and see it online.

    Please thank Tom for his calm, reassuring tone and THANK YOU for continuing this conversation.

    Nickey Burnell,
    Harwich, Cape Cod

  • michael

    In Tom’s second hour show and talking about bring down the tone, he had on Mona Charen, who used the term Tar Baby to describe obama’s health care bill. Tom also had on the show people claiming that obama is a kenyan, gave a platform for a tea party member to state that if elections did not go there way violence could happen(the same person trying to sell american flag) He also had on the show a rabbi calling the center being built a few blocks from ground zero, the ground zero mosque, He also had on his show people claiming that there were death panels in the Heath Care bill. Not only this tom had guest on his show stating (wrongly) that illegals were killing and attacking americans(even when there were not evidence). Tom has also had on his show Mark Williams who labelled obama a Indonesian turn welfare thug. Tom has also had on his show people claiming the moderate leader who was tryin to build the center as radical and supporters of terrorist.

    I would take Tom more Seriously when he invited such people he actually questioned them and call out there bigot or hate. Not to mention he has many times dismissed this behavior coming from the right by comparing it(wrongly mind you) to the left.

    Just check out his shows on anything muslims,immigration,blacks you will find some of his guest out there and will also find tom didn’t do his job. Just last week he had on Byron York Claiming the health care bill is a Job Killing and refered along with his quest the health care bill as obama care.

    No Kudos for someone doing the right thing after the fact. Give it a week and it be back to the same old.

  • Margaret

    Thank you Tom for speaking out. Sadly, I doubt very much that the psychological benefits and power gained from slinging such bitter and ignorant rhetoric will vanquish any hope of coming together.

    I used to think everyone would be better off if the rest of the U.S. just let the republic of Texas secede. I have just now been listening to Graff, a former campaign opponent of Giffords’ (apparently representative of the majority of Republican leadership in the state). His illogical, ignorant, defensive comments lead me to wonder if we could get them to take AZ with them.

  • Paul

    We can’t legislate civility, but certainly we’re becoming a backwards, tribal society when “The Louder I Yell” means “The More Right I Am!” The nation was built on discourse but all we seem to have now is incindiary language and threats.

    Stronger handgun laws? Of course. But the most draconian laws will not solve the reality of proliferation. All the handguns anyone could ever use are already out there. Let’s face it, if you want a handgun you can get one. That’s not going to change.

    More emphasis should be placed on solving the conditions that cause people to use the things — poverty, joblessness, lack of education, etc.

  • Neena

    I can’t help but think about John Salvi’s shooting rampage against women’s health clinics in Boston in 1994. He was a fragile mind pushed to the breaking point by incendiary language in the battle over abortion rights. Mr. Laughner appears right out of the same mold.

  • http://ljcbluemuse.blogspot.com LJCohen

    I have been reflecting on this for the past several days. We must stand up for civility. For the ability to disagree without violence. It is the responsibility of *all* of us to step up and call individuals, journalists, politicians, and pundits on hate. Else this country will devolve into a million extremist splinter groups.

  • Tom

    I totally agree.
    But I noticed you did not call many people out, let’s hear names and what they say.
    We need facts.

    Thanks tom

  • http://www.DebraCowan.com Debra Cowan

    I think it’s also the 24-hour news cycle and the instant access to news. There was no instant communication back in the nineteenth century. I am sure there was vitriolic rhetoric all through our history. The difference is that back then it took a lot of time to get the rhetoric around. Now it’s instantaneous and quotes get Tweeted, Facebooked, commented on websites and vicious, violent talkgets repeated and repeated until folks start to believe it.

  • Pamela

    I listen to Tom regularly and I applaud him for taking a strong position on this. Seriously. If this had happened to a GOP rep, and a “liberal” had posted a list similar to Palin’s, they’d be all over this. So I agree that the GOP has incited near mass rioting and insanity and this friends is the result. It’d be great to continue the conversation into looking at programs like those on Fox as I feel these push people over the edge on much of what is opinion and not fact.

    So thanks Tom – you DO have support.

  • Beth

    During the presidential campaign, some friends and I found ourselves outside a Boston restaurant, waiting for a table. We laughed because there was an empty “reserved” table right in the window, and we wondered aloud what VIP it might be reserved for. A woman also waiting commented, “Maybe it’s for Obama,” who was campaigning in the area. The woman, unprompted, then continued, “I hope it’s Obama. I’d get in my car and back right over him.”

    I immediately turned my back on her, but a member of my party quietly began to talk to her, asking why she held the views she did. The woman stated that she got all her information from Fox News, and that she knew how damaging universal health care would be.

    It’s easy to feel superior when you face the kind of hyperbole this woman used, but I’m sure she felt that she was very well informed. I never watch Fox News, so I suppose I could be accused of ignoring the other side too. I guess what we have to remember, and what we have to teach our children, is to question and understand where information is coming from. And hopefully to discard the sources that resort to gross or incediary rhetoric.

  • Ron


    Your program this morning was a wonderful breath of fresh air…

    I live in Massachusetts and work monthly in Arizona and have come home many times truly worried about the toxic scene there. The state has run itself into a ditch financially, morally and in terms of civilized discourse. People I’ve known for years are raving about Hispanics, quoting lies by the governor about immigrant crime, talking about ‘new solutions’ which obviously include violence. There are times when it reminds me of early days in Nazi Germany, which I have studied as a historian.

    Two other points. Read the commentary sections of newspapers and you can feel like you have fallen into a sewer — and not just our rather parochial Worcester paper, but the Wall Street Journal.

    Finally, a quibble. One of your guests this morning talked about content analysis and through it being able to connect the shooter to right wing groups. PLEASE, encourage the media to dig deep into issues like this and not just whether Sarah Palin or even Glenn Beck are setting a tone. Arizona has a wide and deep network of crazy groups reaching up into the midwest that helped write the anti-immigration bill.

  • Rosemary Hoey Pisano

    To those who say that both left and right media are equally incendiary I ask: Who are the left media equivalents of Rush Limbah and Glenn Beck?

  • Ann Marie Joyce

    Tom is rarely off point but this is the wrong story-to feature . Never mind the toxic rhetoric-how about Congress’ sellout to the NrRA when they lifted the ban on semi automatics-nobody needs this kind of a gun to protect themselves -it just makes this kind of weapon available to unhinged people
    Ann Marie Joyce Braintree

  • Marshall in Brighton

    Tom is saying what so many of us are thinking and he is doing so with great articulation. He should be commended for having such courage and pointing to the problems with the violent rhetoric being spewed by the Tea Party and others. Tom speaks the truth while Palin and her stooges have the audacity to lie to the American people to our faces, those cross-hairs represent a surveyor’s sight? The suggestion is an insult devoid of respect, we need more people like Tom, he has nothing to gain from speaking out like this on a personal level, while the American people stand to benefit from hearing intelligent analysis such as his.

  • Mary Sortal

    During the presidential campaign Sarah Palin stated that “Obama is hanging out with terrorists”. Many of us were already concerned that Obama would be at risk for an assassination attempt. After that comment, I was even more concerned and could just see someone in front of a judge saying that Sarah Palin told them that Obama was a “bad guy” and he had to be taken out. With all the rhetoric about “terrorists” being bad guys who need to be “dealt with”, we cannot have a vice-presidential candidate stating that her opponent is hanging out with them and not expect someone to take action.

  • Steve Fernandez

    Yes, there is too much vitriol used in political discourse – particularly from the right. It is heartening to hear more voices acknowledging this fact. Yet, if people recognize that it is wrong to articulate this violent language against US citizens, why is it OK for people in the US to use this language against any human being anywhere?

    After the 9/11 attacks, I briefly held the hope that people in the US would understand that the pain and loss they suffered should never be suffered by any people anywhere. My brief naiveté ended with the brutal wars the wars the US launched.

    Now, less naive, I still wonder why the pain US citizens feel regarding the attack in Arizona, does not get the general populace to empathize with the pain and loss the US is inflicting on non-US citizens in its military operations in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, etc.

  • Rachel Jacoff

    I admire and agree with Tom. But it looks to me as if violence is as American as apple pie. This is a country which loves war: a war against drugs, against cancer, against terrorism. The gun laws are indefensible, if all we want is people to be able to go hunting or capable of self defense. The killing of King and the Kennedys made way for Nixon and the right. Like many countries, we were born in violence, and we continue to practice it all over the world. But we pretend that we don’t, and we are “shocked” when it happens here. The real terrorists are home grown, white, and American. (Timothy Mc Veigh and now this guy). Sarah Palin took up her gun and her cross hairs because people like to see those things.

  • Rosemary Hoey Pisano

    To those who say that incendiary rhetoric comes equally from the right and the left, I ask: who is the left equivalent of Rush Limbah and Glenn Beck?

  • Jackie Wellman

    Thanks to Tom Ashbrook for his honesty and bravery in laying his feeling on the line in refusing to ignore the outrageous gun imagery supported/condoned by a number of our mainstream politicians and clearly encouraged by AM talk show hosts pleased to be making lots of money by encouraging this hateful dialogue.

    Thank you Tom for this fresh breath of civility and courage.

  • sad

    Meghna, you’re a smart lady, I love to listen to your show.
    Tom, you’re a smart man, and I love to listen to your show.

    It was great to hear Tom as the interviewee… I am a journalist (for a specific national trade) and I have felt the urge for the first time in my 12 years in journalism to be partisan. I don’t want to lose my own integrity, but when no other integrity exists, how can i possibly maintain it? I just have been so appalled for SO long, and I am sort of surprised that this has been the thing to finally get us all to talk about the revolutionary nature of political speech right now… and rhetoric that is screamed from one of the of the most watched pulpits in America.

    I appreciate this a lot, and Meghna, I think you’re a great interviewer.

    Anyone who says you are fueling the flame by inviting critical dialogue is just a product of some of this hate and quite frankly, believes these lies and rhetoric.

    I wanted to weigh in on this via phone, because for the first time lately I want to throw my my objectivity under the bus … I feel some of us are trying to preserve that but because others are not, some intelligent opinions are getting squashed. But my daughter had a Daisy meeting. What I need to do is teach my kids that things outside of them matter. We need to care about other people. I came to find this after my babies were in bed, unaware of what is happening in their political landscape. Not knowing that a little 9-year-old who was a part of student council, who wanted to know about government, was slain.

  • sad

    I’m a reporter for a specialized industry. Before that, an AP reporter, and before that, a daily news reporter.

    For the first time in my 12-year career I want to throw my my objectivity under the bus … and I’m proud of Tom for doing this too, even though we’re told as journalists we’re not supposed to have opinions. In the midst of a recession, I’m considering what else to do, because I don’t think I can be complacent to the terrible dialog and fear mongering that is occurring in this country…
    I’m a proud Army brat, and I love my dad and my country, but I feel as if I’m getting virtually spit on for not subscribing to all of this incitement to hate and violence. My parents and I always love each other, no matter how vastly our ideals diverge. But I hear the fear in them increasing. The fact that they are starting to believe that Obama is trying to take this country, take their rights, ruin what they love …. they are getting that from somewhere. While I’m sad that these two smart people whom I love are not thinking critically for themselves, I am equally upset that a network of people making tons of money is convincing those making moderate incomes or retirements they should throw everything they have into ensuring those rich people keep the tax cuts … b/c anything else is a violation and an attack on their rights.

    What I try to ask them is: “What does the ONLY SOURCE YOU TRUST (they have repeatedly said, they only trust ONE source, and that’s Fox, and I don’t think they’re alone) have to possibly gain by convincing you about certain things?”

    They will not respond. They just mistrust every other source so deeply (this is a product of 9-11, I increasingly think the terrorists have won in ways we have not yet realized) that there is no other source. Even if their one source is faulty when checked against every other source out there, they have nothing but praise for the source. No ohter source is to be trusted. This is when I began watching Fox, when I realized how vast its reach was on people who are smart, good, and people I love, my parents.

    It’s the same source that uses fear on a regular basis, the same source that uses terms like “taking back our country,” and “treason,” and “Communism” and the rhetoric about how anyone who disagrees hates America, hates the Constitution…

    They are genuinely frightened, but they don’t listen to me, who says, “Look, listen to, read, watch other sources and you won’t feel so afraid!” because they mistrust anything that isn’t Fox. This is a source that is only peripherally based in truth. I try to tell them that the people talking to them on Fox are making more $ than they’ll ever see in a lifetime.

    Anyway …. what to do? I have no answers. Unfortunately, I don’t think this tragedy will provide them, except to the rational thinking people. But that’s not who we need to reach, is it?

  • http://www.inkhouse.net Beth Monaghan

    Great comments on this topic. Some of the quotes above are just chilling. I am a PR person, and we are keenly aware of how controversy can grab headlines, but I think we all must take this very seriously and work to choose our words carefully. I blogged about this yesterday if you want to take a look. The piece is called “Words as Weapons” http://inkhousepr.blogspot.com/2011/01/words-as-weapons.html

  • Emily

    I have had mixed feelings about RadioBoston from the start. I have sorely missed ‘Fresh Air’ during my 3-4 commuting hour in the afternoons and truly despised ‘Day to Day.’ The beginnings of RadioBoston were a bit rough for me (the first show’s story about the wind? Honestly?) but Monday’s discussion with Tom Ashbrook made me realize just how important this radio show is to our commonwealth. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

    As a high school English teacher, I see the effect of the technological age on our youth. Tom’s point can be connected right back to all of our recent efforts to stem bullying. I can patrol it in the classroom, but how can I monitor it online? Especially if I’m not permitted to be ‘friends’ with my students in a cyber-driven world? We can model and encourage polite discourse and debate but it will do little for our youth when they spend their nights listening to a litany of verbal abuse on XBox live. What needs to be jumpstarted is a national conversation on civility – simply being kind to others and treating them as you would be treated. We can disagree but it needn’t be vicious or hurtful. I support Tom’s point wholly and hope that others pick up the cause of promoting kindness for kindness’ sake.

Hosts Meghna Chakrabarti and Anthony Brooks introduce us to newsmakers, big thinkers and artists and bring us stories of relevance to Bostonians here and around the region. Live every weekday at 3.

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