In November of 2010, Tom Flanagan – University of Calgary professor and former chief of staff to Prime Minister Stephen Harper – called for the assassination of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange on the CBC program Power and Politics. Specifically, he said: “Well, I think Assange should be assassinated, actually. I think Obama should put out a contract and maybe use a drone or something.” If you’ve been paying attention, then this is not news. The clip went viral on YouTube and even incited a complaint to the RCMP and the Vancouver Police against Flanagan. The complainant, Vancouver-based lawyer Gail Davidson, claimed that Flanagan “counselled and/or incited the assassination of Julian Assange contrary to the Criminal Code of Canada.”
Again, this is not news. However, it becomes relevant in light of the recent attempted assassination of American Democratic Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords in Tucson, Arizona on January 8, 2011. Canadians like to think that we don’t engage in the kind of extremist and violent rhetoric which characterize the reporting style of popular American pundits and political figures such as Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin. Yet Flanagan’s comment, in the context of recent events, disputes the commonly held belief that we are above the callous and casual calls for criminal action against public figures. Furthermore, the actions of shooter Jared Lee Loughner beg several questions: was this merely an act by a single, deranged psychopath? Is this indicative of larger problems in prevailing Western rhetoric? And how much responsibility should the media hold for this incident, if any?
There is no question that Loughner suffers from untreated mental illness, though it can only be speculated as to what extent and type. It is clear from looking at his YouTube channel that Loughner has no particular political allegiance. Phrases found in his videos, which are accessible by a quick Google search, show that the possibly delusional Loughner has an extreme distrust for the establishment. As of yet, there is no proof that Loughner is even a follower of Sarah Palin’s Twitter account, and there is no indication of how he votes. But if he is a follower of the former US Vice Presidential Candidate, he would have been well aware of her personal slogan and manifesto: “[l]overs of America: ‘Don’t Retreat, Instead – RELOAD!” Gun-happy citizens, the politicians that they elect, and the pundits that recycle harmful views have led to an entrenched ideology in the fiber of Americana: namely, the Second Amendment, which grants Americans the right to bear arms – seemingly without any regards to the specific circumstances of the wielder.
The present political climate in the United States of America is dire. Universal health care – including the mental health care that could have helped Loughner before he killed six citizens and put a congresswoman in critical condition – continues to be reviled, despite President Obama’s attempts. Also worth noting, Giffords had received death threats in the past for supporting health care reform. Attempts have been made by states such as Hawaii, Maryland and New York to restrict firearms rights; however, in several states (including Arizona) anyone can walk in from the street and obtain the kind of weapon Loughner used, a Glock 19 semiautomatic weapon with an extended magazine that allows the shooter to fire off 33 shots before reloading.
Throughout all of North America, we live in a climate where there is a consistent erosion of decency in the way we speak to or about people in the public eye. The media is history in the making, but the way things are currently headed – specifically, the persistent reluctance to take a stand against hate speech and warmongering – is going to produce an extremely dark time in history for future generations to look upon. I know I don’t want to be responsible for that. I hope that the media voices of the 21st Century don’t really want to leave a legacy of violence and mud-raking, and I believe the onus should fall on opinion leaders to push the conversation in a more constructive direction.