Appearing as a guest on Saturday’s special edition of Countdown on MSNBC, Washington Post associate editor Eugene Robinson joined host Keith Olbermann in linking the violent attack on Democratic Representative Gabrielle Giffords to political rhetoric, presumably by conservatives, and suggested that such public figures must be careful to avoid inciting mentally disturbed individuals. Moments after noting comments by Pima County, Arizona, Sheriff Clarence Dupnik complaining about violent rhetoric on radio and television, Olbermann brought aboard Robinson for further discussion.
While Olbermann at one pointed noted that "We don't know enough about the motives of the man they have in custody," he later posed, "I've never been convinced still that most of the people saying these things actually want to see people shot. What, though, does that matter at this point if people are being shot? How straight a line does it have to be from the one to the other?"
Robinson asserted that "intent doesn’t obviate the crime," and linked political rhetoric to violence by the mentally ill with guns:
Well, I think this is a case in which intent doesn't obviate the crime. No, I think most of these people who say these violent sounding things about how evil your government is and what it's doing to you and who quote Thomas Jefferson about democracy needing to be watered by the blood of patriots and that sort of thing, I don't think they actually intend people to take this seriously, but it can and there are people who are unbalanced who have access to guns who do take it seriously, and we should know that by now.
Below is a transcript of the relevant portion of the special Saturday, January 8, edition of MSNBC’s Countdown show:
KEITH OLBERMANN: And then the sheriff said something extraordinary. He blamed in some sense the events of the day on the rhetoric of those in the radio business and some in the television business and said that it may be free speech, but it does not come without consequences.
OLBERMANN: Let me turn now to Gene Robinson, MSNBC political analyst and associate editor and Pulitzer prize-winning columnist of the Washington Post. Gene, good evening.
EUGENE ROBINSON: Good evening, Keith, on a very shocking and sad day.
OLBERMANN: And extraordinary one. Threats of violence against a member of Congress, that's nothing new. As the sheriff said, everybody in public office seems to be getting one a day now. Rarely in U.S. history has it gotten to this level of violence. This is only the sixth shooting of a sitting Congressperson. What are we seeing here tonight, Gene?
EUGENE ROBINSON, WASHINGTON POST: I think this is just extraordinary. Keith, you point to the quote from Sheriff Dupnik that I thought was just extraordinary. He said, I'm not aware of any public officials who are not receiving threats. Stand back from that for a minute and think about it for a minute. That is an extraordinary state of affairs that, to run for public office and to win public office, is to have your life threatened. That is the condition that you sign up for when you run for Congress. That's extraordinary, and that it takes something like what happened today to make us stop and say that is unacceptable. If that's the case, then shame on me, shame on all of us, and I mean all Americans, for having to be shocked back to that realization by tragic events like those we saw today in Tucson.
OLBERMANN: This is something, while she was still Speaker, that Nancy Pelosi warned about. September of 2009, the climate in this country was like it was in the late '70s in San Francisco when, as you and I will recall and perhaps some of our viewers do not, the murder of Mayor George Moscone and the murder of councilman Harvey Milk, the first openly gay leader of San Francisco's local government on a tragic Monday night in 1978 by another member of the council. Others have likened this to the '60s civil rights era. We don't know enough about the motives of the man they have in custody. There are hints around the edges that are very disturbing. Can you assess where we are in this era of politics?
ROBINSON: Look, first of all, I think we should take note of the fact that it is almost invariably the mentally disturbed or upset who are most susceptible to vitriolic political rhetoric and who take it seriously. Who might, for example, and I say might, we are not, we have no idea that this happened, but who might look at cross hairs on a map and take that seriously. It's not people who are on an even keel who believe that. It's people who are disturbed. So it's not at all surprising that some of what we see from the suspect is, sounds kind of deranged. Now, you and I do remember a period in the '60s and '70s where in general the political violence and the threat of political violence and violent political rhetoric came mostly from the left. And actually the Milk and Moscone murders in San Francisco, I happened to be in San Francisco at the time working for the San Francisco Chronicle. That was kind of anomalous, and certainly in the years before that it was a time when Bill Ayers was relevant and dangerous, a time when there was an actual Black Panther Party as opposed to an imaginary New Black Panther Party. But today I think we can say incontrovertibly that violent political rhetoric and the threat of political violence comes exclusively from the right. And so that's the kind of apocalyptic rhetoric, anti-government, take it back, protect your guns, and that I think is what some people, unfortunately, are susceptible to.
OLBERMANN: I can't and have never come close to believing that any of the people who put that rhetoric out there, with the exception of the real, the fringe ones who the government has done both under this administration and to its credit under the Republican administrations of Mr. Bush and the previous President Bush and even President Reagan, I thought they'd all done good jobs taking care of the extreme rhetoric, the ones that are clearly incitements to, you know, attack an individual, the clear straight-line provocations. But I've never been convinced that the other people who say these things, whether they're in politics, whether they're in broadcasting, and it was extraordinary to hear the sheriff talk, specifically call out people in radio and some people in television. I don't think there's any question about who he was talking to, and talking about Arizona becoming the Mecca of prejudice and bigotry. I've never been convinced still that most of the people saying these things actually want to see people shot. What, though, does that matter at this point if people are being shot? How straight a line does it have to be from the one to the other?
ROBINSON: Well, I think this is a case in which intent doesn't obviate the crime. No, I think most of these people who say these violent sounding things about how evil your government is and what it's doing to you and who quote Thomas Jefferson about democracy needing to be watered by the blood of patriots and that sort of thing, I don't think they actually intend people to take this seriously, but it can and there are people who are unbalanced who have access to guns who do take it seriously, and we should know that by now. And so we should, frankly, temper our rhetoric, all of us, to take into account the fact that we're not supposed to have this sort of hatred in us for a different political view. We can argue and we can argue vociferously and strenuously and filibuster and everything else, but there are people out there who do take it seriously, and we see it again and again, and we don't seem to learn that lesson.
OLBERMANN: What do we do about it apart from appealing to the better angels of people who speak that way and their nature?
ROBINSON: What do we do about it? Well, it starts, I think, with each of us, and again, I'm speaking very broadly about not just about those of us who either write columns or talk on television or have loud voices but also people who go to town hall meetings and people who talk to their neighbors about politics and whatever. It should, we should all take a look in a mirror, and we should think about what Sheriff Dupnik said, which is, you know, vitriol, it may be free speech, but words do have consequences. They do have consequences. And we should reflect on that. Beyond that, you can't legislate. I think we have to legislate for ourselves morally.