Column: When will we hold politicians accountable for their speech?

Republican presidential candidate, businessman Donald Trump, speaks during a rally coinciding with Pearl Harbor Day at Patriots Point aboard the aircraft carrier USS Yorktown in Mt. Pleasant, S.C., Monday, Dec. 7, 2015. (Mic Smith/AP)

The year 2015 has been marked with tragedy after tragedy; many of which come in the wake of promises and attacks by American politicians. In the wake of these tragedies, it seems fair to ask the question: when will politicians be held responsible for their hostile rhetoric?

On Nov. 27, Robert Dear opened fire on a Planned Parenthood building in Colorado Springs killing three people, including one officer in the firefight, and wounding nine others. After a tense five-hour stand-off with police, he was arrested. Dear, while being apprehended, repeatedly stated “no more baby parts” as the motivation behind his attack.

To many people, this kind of rhetoric may seem familiar. Over the summer, a clearly edited video showing Planned Parenthood selling fetuses for profit started to air across the country as a direct attack on Planned Parenthood and the pro-choice movement. Many Republican presidential candidates spoke in support of the video, using its intended divisiveness as grounds for gaining supporters. The connection between the words uttered by Dear after his rampage and the words spoken by the presidential candidates is clear. 

This incident, however, is not a stand-alone occurrence. Presidential candidate Donald Trump’s speech on how he intendeds to deport all undocumented immigrants in the country and how the Mexican immigrants are no better than “rapists” and “drug-dealers” prompted a pair of brothers to violently lash out. After leaving a Boston Red Sox game, Scott and Steve Leader came across a homeless man sleeping near a train station. The two brothers proceeded to beat the man with an iron pipe and then urinate on him because he was, “homeless,” “Hispanic” and “illegal."

It was later revealed that the man was in fact a United States citizen. The brothers said they agreed with Trump and it was time for these people to go. Trump would later go on Twitter to say that he doesn’t condone the violence. However, at a press conference earlier in the week when he was asked about the incident, Trump said that his supporters are “passionate.” 

It would be absolutely ludicrous and unfounded to place responsibility for both attacks on politicians. An individual would need a very loose grip on reality to think political rhetoric constituted a go-ahead to commit a heinous crime. Further, both of these attacks were committed by people who already had long rap sheets. However, something needs to be said for the influences that caused these men to commit such crimes. 

Words have power – whether politicians admit the power of their dialogue, by running for office they put themselves on a national pedestal. As a result, everything said on the campaign trail is going to be heard, interpreted and potentially acted upon even if this goes against the initial meaning behind the words. It’s too little too late to say that something was taken out of context after a tragedy occurs. We need foresight, not apologetic hindsight. The only thing that can prevent such a tragedy from happening is to limit divisive and blatantly provocative rhetoric.

The last time this occurred was during the 2008 presidential race when Senator, and then presidential candidate, John McCain had to tell a crowd of people – a crowd that was booing him – that Barack Obama was not an “Arab” or a Muslim and not someone that the American people should fear, after a woman announced such illogical, unfounded and bigoted fears.

Unfortunately, it seems McCain’s words have fallen on deaf ears, or worse, that the damage has already been done. The notion that our President is un-American still exists in people’s minds seven years into his presidency. Such is evidence of the tremendous power of charged political word and speech

This violence may have started with people at a rally, but it has escalated to people causing bodily harm and taking up arms against others. If politicians don’t start taking responsibility for what they say, especially when trying to stoke fears and rally support, these tragedies could become worse than they already are.


Amar Batra is a contributor to the Daily Campus opinion section, and is also a staff photographer. He can be reached via email at amar.batra@uconn.edu. He tweets at @amar_batra19.