In the aftermath of the Alexandria shooting earlier today, Rep. Rodney Davis (R-IL) called the shooting by James Hodgkinson “the result of political rhetorical terrorism.” While some might argue that stress tends to make people say things that, in retrospect, aren’t very judicious, Congressman Davis has repeated his catchphrase many times in the hour since that first live interview with Fox News. It’s a purposeful use and re-use of a very specific phrase, and as such, we should take a deeper look at what precisely this statement means.
Terrorism, by default, is politically motivated violence; using the phrase “political terrorism” is therefore redundant and pointless. The key part of his phrase is “rhetorical.” As we all know, rhetoric is speech-based. In fact, it’s defined as “the art of effective or persuasive speaking or writing,” and even “regarded as lacking in sincerity or meaningful content,” so it’s a very specific kind of speech.
Davis’ use of the term “political rhetorical terrorism” wasn’t initially referring to the shooting itself. In his first interview with Fox, he called the shooting “the result of” the rhetorical terrorism. In Davis’ mind, the shooting wasn’t terrorism – the words that supposedly caused it were.
This is a perilous assertion, because the core concept is that words are dangerous and should be controlled. It’s not exactly what you hope to hear from your friendly neighborhood GOP Congressman. Then again, he represents a district in Illinois that includes such bastions of progressive thought as Springfield and Champaign so perhaps that’s rubbed off on him a bit.
Perhaps the most curious part of this legislator’s remark is that it continues to mutate with each interview. After his first declaration that the shooting was the result of political rhetorical terrorism, it seems Davis massaged his talking points a little. Making a special trip down to a podium in the Capitol, he had this to say:
I went back to my office, and I took the chance to come down here because I wanted to talk to people about what I’d witnessed, and about the effect it should have as we move forward as a country, and that’s why I’m here, bloodied in my uniform, still not had a chance to clean up because it’s that important that a message gets out that the hatefulness — this political rhetoric hate, we’ll let the witnesses describe, but this could be the first political rhetorical terrorist act and that has to stop.
Davis’ statement shows several things.
- By saying he “took a chance,” he makes it sound as though he is brave in the face of an ongoing threat. Why was speaking to the public taking a chance?
- He also specifically mentions that he wanted to talk to people “about the effect it should have as we move forward as a country,” so he’s already looking to position himself as helping to direct that movement.
- He feels the need to point out that he is still wearing his baseball practice shirt, and refers to it as “bloodied in my uniform,” as though he is a warrior returning from war. What’s interesting is that he says he hasn’t had a chance to clean up – yet he was at his office, and set aside his ‘chance’ to clean up, choosing instead to ‘take a chance’ and tell people how things should go now. In short, he leveraged his bloody shirt as authority, and traded cleaning up for a photo op.
- “This could be the first political rhetorical terrorist act” is not what he said previously, is it?
In that last sentence, Davis pivoted from saying the act was the result of rhetorical terrorism, to saying the act was rhetorical terrorism. That’s a subtle but significant difference. There is nothing speech-based about the rounds that flew all over the baseball park this morning. There is nothing related to speech about the surgical repairs needed by Rep. Steve Scalise. Davis’ initial remark was his actual meaning. In his mind, the rhetoric is the problem. The words are the problem.
Perhaps a few rhetorical questions are in order for the good Congressman. Questions like: Whose speech should we shut down? And who should determine what is and what is not permitted to say? You see, people like Mr. Davis aren’t able to tease out their thoughts in any logical way.
Traditionally the art of rhetoric, as developed by Aristotle, contained three vital elements: ethos, logos and pathos. In terms of ethos: Is he trying to persuade his audience by virtue of his GOP bona fides? In terms of logos: Is he appealing to logic or reason here? And finally, in terms of pathos: Is his attack on speech an effective appeal to our emotions?
These questions – as all rhetorical questions do – answer themselves. Thus, we are left with believing that Congressman Davis’ comments are nothing more than the signs of a shameless opportunist who knows a good photo op when he sees one.