Candid Comment: Politicians: Ratchet down the toxic rhetoric

THE recent shooting incident in the US which killed six people, including a nine-year-old girl and left Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords fighting for her life, has sparked a fiery debate about the dangers of heated political rhetoric.

While some have dismissed it as a sporadic incident which involved a single person with mental problems, it has, however, brought to the fore the consequences of hate speech.

The motives of the shooting were not immediately apparent, but have been placed in the context of the edgy American political landscape. Republicans via the “Tea Party” movement have become very militant and it was not difficult for observers to lay the blame at the door of its de facto leader, former vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin.

The US is classified as an advanced democracy, and its political system is deemed as being far superior to that of most African countries. Zimbabwe does not come close, we are told!

Yet it seems that politicians across this seemingly wide divide appear to have in common fear for their safety and also have to endure an atmosphere where hate speech prevails.

According to Newsweek magazine the state of Arizona alone has been rocked by threats of violence against its politicians for nearly a year. Politicians have been threatened with death, have had their offices vandalised and been shot at; and one reportedly even had a US$1 million bounty placed on his head.

Together, the magazine adds, they produced an itching fear that long preceded the alleged crimes of the shooter Jared Lee Loughner.

Even if Loughner is shown to suffer from mental illness, as he likely will, he did not exist in a vacuum. He lived in a climate teeming with charged rhetoric due to the economic challenges the US is facing. The Tea Party movement has been criticised for stating in their demonstrations that they would use “bullets if ballots don’t work”.

On a map on Palin’s political action committee’s website, Giffords’ district was among a number that had been depicted with “cross hairs” –– a rifle lens.
Giffords’ election opponent held a campaign event in which participants were offered the opportunity to fire a fully loaded M-16 with him, as a symbol of his assault on Giffords’ seat.

It becomes clear therefore that toxic rhetoric, whether in America or Zimbabwe, can only serve to retard democratic processes and soil an atmosphere where issues and not people are supposed to be on the agenda.

It is poignant to note that Giffords was shot whilst engaging in a “congress on your corner” event where she was interacting with constituents. What better illustration of how disruptive this incident was to the cause of democracy.

Politicians will be politicians, and a bit of sparring would ordinarily constitute acceptable public discourse.

What would politics be without politicians “jabbing” each other from time to time such as the recent exchanges between Welshman Ncube and Nelson Chamisa, as reported by NewsDay. What should be clear however is that a line should be drawn between politicking and outright hate speech that puts fellow politicians as well as supporters in the line of fire.

President Robert Mugabe and senior Zanu PF officials have in the past professed ignorance and denied culpability in the violent acts those who support them have perpetrated, yet their rhetoric has crossed this line on more than a few occasions.

Politicians and public officials who exploit public fears and advance their careers through the use of vitriol should ratchet down the rhetoric and discipline themselves, particularly with elections seemingly around the corner.

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