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Weight of words in focus after Arizona shooting

By Kristi Keck, CNN
A crowd, including members of Congress and staff, pauses for a moment of silence to honor the Arizona shooting victims.
A crowd, including members of Congress and staff, pauses for a moment of silence to honor the Arizona shooting victims.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Militant-themed messages and speeches laced with fear mark political dialogue
  • Lawmakers on both sides of aisle call on colleagues to tone it down
  • The notion that rhetoric caused the violence is "fallacious," professor says
  • Health care debate looms again in House; it could be volatile

For more information, visit CNN affiliates KGUN, KOLD, KVOA, KPHO and KMSB. Read the federal charges against Jared Lee Loughner (PDF).

(CNN) -- There's no evidence the heated political environment played any role in the shooting spree that left Rep. Gabrielle Giffords in critical condition and killed six others, but observers say if nothing else, the tragedy will force politicians to re-evaluate their rhetoric.

Militant-themed messages and speeches laced with fear have marked recent dialogue in Washington and on the campaign trail, but in the aftermath of the massacre in Arizona, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are calling on their colleagues to tone it down.

"An event like this really ought to make us rethink the way we speak to each other every day about politics and policy in the country, especially in the Congress," said Thomas Benson, professor of rhetoric at Penn State University.

The night before Saturday's shooting in Tucson, Arizona, Giffords issued a new call for more civility in politics. She sent an e-mail to outgoing Kentucky Secretary of State Trey Grayson, a Republican, that included a remark about the need to "tone our rhetoric and partisanship down."

Giffords e-mail: Need to 'tone our rhetoric and partisanship down'

The suspected shooter's motive is unclear, but Pima County, Arizona, Sheriff Clarence Dupnik was quick to criticize the "vitriolic rhetoric" heard on the radio and television.

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"That may be free speech, but it's not without consequences," he said Saturday.

Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin's political aide removed a controversial Web post this weekend that featured cross hairs over the congressional districts of 20 Democratic candidates, including Giffords. A Palin aide denied the Web posting from the 2010 congressional campaign was designed to incite violence.

Adviser: Linking Palin to shootings 'appalling'

Florida conservative radio host Joyce Kauffman took heat after remarking at a Tea Party rally, "If ballots don't work, bullets will."

Biting language has also come from those on the left, with Democrats and President Obama pegging Republicans as"hostage takers."

Despite all the nastiness, Richard Vatz, professor of political communication at Towson University in Maryland, said the notion that the rhetoric caused the violence is "fallacious."

That connection, he said, is born out of recognition that such violent incidents can't be eradicated.

"The motive I think is the frustration that a congresswoman can be shot and that a judge can be killed and that an utterly innocent little girl can be killed and we can't preventatively stop these matters. The frustration is that we cannot stop this," Vatz said.

Poll: Charged speech not to blame for Arizona attacks

David Gergen, a senior political analyst for CNN, said that until the gunman's motive is clear, pointing fingers "only contributes to what we must end in America: a toxic political environment."

"This is not a moment to point fingers and make accusations. But it is a time to pray for the victims -- and to pledge to each other that we will struggle for a more civil and decent America," he wrote in a commentary on CNN.com.

Despite the disconnect between cause and effect, Vatz said he predicts there will be a softening of the tone on Capitol Hill as Congress returns to business as usual.

"There will be an effort to avoid incendiary rhetoric. But as to whether that will have any effect in a macro sense on nationwide violence, I think it will not," he said.

Before the shooting at the Arizona political meet-and-greet, House lawmakers were preparing to vote on the repeal of the health care legislation this week. The debate leading up to the passage of the Democrats' health care plan was bitterly partisan, and the attempt to repeal the legislation was expected to be equally volatile. The House of Representatives instead decided to postpone all legislation scheduled for this week, replacing the health care vote with a resolution to honor the victims of the tragedy.

The question remains whether Congress will be able to take up such an emotional and divisive issue without the negativity that surrounded the debate last year.

House action postponed

"It isn't just a question of heated rhetoric. Of course, we are going to have heated rhetoric," said Benson, the Penn State professor, "but even with extreme partisanship there can be and needs to be civility."

Vatz said an avoidance of the more incendiary language could last "as long as the sensitivity to the possibility of a connection between violence and language is around."

"But I think it will have diminishing returns. I think eventually the language will ratchet up again," he said.

Benson said that while the impact of words is difficult to measure, language can create an atmosphere, evoke emotion and drive people apart.

"Rhetoric can definitely have severe consequences or we wouldn't employ it," he said.

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