Opinion » Viewpoint

Language as Crime Scene

Tracing the fingerprints left by incendiary political rhetoric.



It is July 27, 2008, and candidate Barack Obama is finishing up his world tour. Three days earlier, his Berlin speech drew more than 200,000 people. The presidential campaign heats up as John McCain releases another controversial Internet ad claiming Obama "doesn't care about the troops unless the cameras are around."

In Knoxville, around 200 people squeeze into the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church for a Sunday morning production of a children's musical. At approximately 10:18 a.m., Jim Adkisson walks in carrying a guitar case from which he pulls a 12-gauge shotgun. Two people are killed and seven are injured before he is wrestled to the ground.

Believing he would be killed, Adkisson leaves a suicide letter, beginning: "To Whom it may concern ... There is a vast left-wing conspiracy in this country and these liberals are working together to attack every decent and honorable institution in the nation, trying to turn this country into a communist state. ... I couldn't get to the generals and high ranking officers of the Marxist movement so I went after the foot soldiers. ... I'd like to encourage other like-minded people to do what I've done. ... Do something good for your country before you go. Go Kill Liberals!"

Where might thoughts and ideas such as these originate? According to the affidavit, investigators found not only the letter but three conservative books: Sean Hannity's Let Freedom Ring, Bill O'Reilly's The O'Reilly Factor, and Michael Savage's Liberalism is a Mental Disorder.

As a graduate student studying political rhetoric at the University of Memphis, I decided to treat Adkisson's letter as a crime scene. Like a detective working from a hunch, I questioned the books as suspects — texts that possibly influenced Adkisson's language and conclusions.

Using the political theorist Edwin Black as my guide, I dusted the scene for rhetorical fingerprints: words, phrases, and themes that were traceable from the letter back to the books. The rationale behind my approach was to provide the authors with a fair trial. In March, I presented my findings to the Southern States Communication Association, documenting how Adkisson's reasoning and conclusions appear to be influenced by the books.

Here are some of the fingerprints I discovered: In his second chapter, Hannity devotes an entire section to "The Vast Left-Wing Conspiracy," describing the left's attempts to undermine America's main institutions. Adkisson adopts Hannity's major themes and mirrors Savage's primary argument: "They want to replace our system with a socialist or communist form of government."

The letter's logic is shaped by their narratives. Hannity proclaims, "After we defeat our latest foreign enemy, we will still face threats to our freedom, largely from left-wing extremists in our own country." Savage's conclusion continues Hannity's story: "The enemy is not only at the gates; the enemy is at our throats. ... America is being compromised from without and within. You cannot let them get away with this." Adkisson's justified attack is a logical outcome of their narratives: "I realized I could engage the terrorist allies here in America."

According to philosopher Kenneth Burke, individuals get a "sense of what properly goes with what" from ideological vocabularies. My analysis reveals these linguistic equations: Liberals = Marxists/Socialists/Communists = Traitors or Enemies of America.

America is framed as being in a war, where relations are viewed as conflicts between enemies instead of conversations among citizens. Adkisson's conclusion articulates this worldview: "They are all a bunch of traitors."

America's form of democracy, which requires deliberative engagement, is disabled by narratives that transform fellow countrymen into traitors. In the end, of course, the letter and the books did not commit murder, nor did the words and phrases pull the trigger. Adkisson did.

Political surveys reveal people are turned off by destructive discourse. According to political scientist Robert Putnam, every year America's political system loses more than a quarter of a million potential participants.

From the national debt to Memphis City Schools, the citizens of the United States have difficult issues to tackle. We need more people to join the process. After the Tucson shootings, we took a step back and examined what we were saying, but the discussion immediately degenerated into mutual recriminations rather than true conversation.

For democracy's sake, we should ask ourselves as a nation: To what extent should a person be accountable for the words and images they use in public discourse? I am not talking about political correctness. I am talking about ethics and personal responsibility, the heart and soul of a country governed for and by "we the people."

Brandon Goldsmith is a Ph.D. candidate, focusing on political rhetoric, in the department of communication at the University of Memphis.

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