Commentators on opposite sides of the political divide have reacted to the shooting of US Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords in divisive fashion. Those on the left – see Michael Tomasky in the Guardian – object to the combative and aggressive language used on the right, while those on the right – see James Delingpole in the Telegraph – declares that this language is just the rough and tumble of the playground which everyone knows is not meant literally.
I think it is generally wrong to exploit a tragedy for political purposes, and it is outside the scope of this blog to examine the shooting in Tucson more closely, except for two small points.
First, it is worth noting that the US murder rate is 5.4 per 100,000 people (in the UK, it is 1.4). Without sounding callous, this means that if there are 535 members of Congress, there would on average be one murdered every 34.6 years; the last Congressman to be killed was Leo Ryan in 1978, 33 years ago. Leaving aside any discussion about the distasteful nature of political debate in the US at present, the attempt on Ms Giffords’ life might simply be taken as a reflection of the widespread use of firearms in America to settle disputes of all kinds, not merely those about politics.
But contrast the coverage of Ms Giffords with that of the assassination of Salman Taseer, governor of the Pakistani province of Punjab. He was shot by one of his own bodyguards, who apparently objected to Mr Taseer’s support for changes to the Pakistani law on blasphemy. A Christian woman in Pakistan facing charges under this law had been visited in prison by Mr Taseer, a gesture which had provoked substantial opposition from some Muslim religious figures and which appears to have led to his own death. The secular mindset is fighting for survival in Pakistan.
Why has the fate of Mr Taseer not garnered more attention in the media here? The issue of relations between Muslim and other communities is a difficult and sensitive one in the UK, too, while the rise of Islamist sentiment in Pakistan also threatens the ability of Nato to fight its war in Afghanistan. I can’t help feeling that this is another example of the British media’s fixation on America at the expense of the rest of the world. What happened to Ms Giffords and the other victims of the shooting was dreadful, but the murder in Islamabad will turn out to be the more ominous event.