Editor’s Note: For years, the United States has seen a steady escalation of political rhetoric, angrier and angrier and ever more extreme. Indeed, the bottom line of this devolution in civility has been the bottom line for the leading perpetrators: the more outrageous the rhetoric the more money is made.

When this incendiary rhetoric is mixed with the availability of high-powered weapons and a neglect of mental health, tragedies like the one in Tucson, sadly, should come as no surprise, as William John Cox reflects in this guest essay:

The deadly combination of suicide terrorists’ mental instability, their political and religious indoctrination, and readily available bomb materials and firearms explode in violence almost every day somewhere in the Middle-East.

Thus, it should come as no surprise that a young schizophrenic American, whose untreated illness is exacerbated by inflamed political rhetoric, easily buys a legally concealed combat handgun and shoots the “target” of the political “speech” under conditions where there is no escape.

As we evaluate the cause and effects of the Tucson murders, assign responsibility and seek solutions, we must continue to uphold the freedom of speech while taking reasonable steps to avoid violent consequences.

Political speech has always been inflammatory in the United States, but perhaps due to the increasing militarization of the nation, politicians and commentators have come to routinely talk about “hunting” and “targeting” political opponents, and stupidly say things like: “never retreat – reload.” 

It is disingenuous to assert such language does not incite violence, and it is naive to believe it is harmless.

As best we can, given the Second Amendment as currently interpreted by the Supreme Court, we must do everything we can to legally ensure that mentally disturbed people, including those under the influence of highly-charged political speech, cannot purchase, possess, and carry concealed firearms, particularly those with combat capabilities.

It is highly unlikely the narrowly-defined defense of insanity will excuse Loughner from the legal consequences of his acts, nor is it likely that those who recklessly painted a gun-sight crosshair on his intended victim’s district will be held legally responsible under a theory of negligence. 

However, all of us must remember, as Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords herself said when she learned that she had been targeted on Sarah Palin’s website, “words have consequences.”

While politicians, on both the Right and Left, may not be liable in a court of law for the consequences of their inflammatory words, voters must carefully consider such speech when evaluating the character and reliability of those who seek to influence their vote.

Accountability can be assessed in the polling booth, as well as in the courtroom.

William John Cox is a retired prosecutor and public interest lawyer, author and political activist.  His efforts to promote a peaceful political evolution can be found at VotersEvolt.com, his writings are collected at WilliamJohnCox.com and he can be contacted at u2cox@msn.com.

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