Gabrielle Giffords, the Arizona congresswoman who was shot Saturday by an apparently-deranged gunman. A 22-year-old man named Jared Lee Loughner has been charged with killing six people, including U.S. District Judge John Roll and a 9-year-old girl, and wounding 14 others, including Giffords.
Rep. Giffords was one of 20 Democratic incumbents targeted for defeat in the 2010 elections in a graphic on Sarah Palin’s Facebook page. Gov. Palin reportedly has deleted this graphic along with other violent language and imagery. I think this is wise. It is time to ease up on the violent rhetoric. But it also is time to ease up on the guilt-by-association.
Markos Moulitas, editor of the Daily Kos web page, tweeted, “Mission accomplished, Sarah Palin.” That was a low blow. I do not believe that Gov. Palin wished anybody’s death, and there is nothing we now know about Loughner to connect him with the Tea Party or conservative Republicans.
Whenever some crazy criminal commits a crime like this, there is always someone to connect it with some political tendency in American life. I have heard many people cite Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber, as an example of right-wing fundamentalism, based on the fact that he was a white man with a crew cut; McVeigh was a Gulf War veteran obsessed with the war crimes he felt the U.S. government committed.
About the same time, then House Speaker Newt Gingrich, based on no evidence whatever, attributed a woman’s murder of her children to the influence of liberalism. Many conservatives connected the Unabomber’s hatred of science and technology to Al Gore’s environmentalism. And every crime committed by a Muslim is attributed to the Muslim religion.
I do think the violence and implied threats in some of the Tea Party rhetoric (“we came unarmed – this time”) are, at best, not constructive. What matters is not what any one person says on any particular occasion, but the cumulative effect, day after day. At the same time I reserve the right to use strong language myself when President Obama claims the right to issue death warrants, keep people imprisoned and send people to be tortured, without charging them with any crime.
My other thought is: Suppose a black person posted something like Sarah Palin’s target list on the Internet, and another black person killed one of the people on the list. Suppose the poster and the killer were immigrants from Mexico. Suppose they were Muslims. What reaction do you think there would be?
Markos Moulitas and Heather Parton on the Daily Kos and Hullabaloo web logs compiled long lists of disturbing examples of violent political language in recent American politics. Click on Guns, God and Incitement and Nothing to See Here to read them.
James Fallows of The Atlantic Monthly, looking back on history, said most political assassins had motives unrelated to the important political movements of their time. Click on The Cloudy Logic of ‘Political’ Shootings for his analysis.
Steve Benen of the Washington Monthly commended a comment to Politico by a senior Republican senator on the importance of “tone” in politics. But he thought it remarkable that the senator should feel the need to express such a sentiment anonymously. Click on There Is a Need for Some Reflection Here for his full comment.
Michael O’Hare on the Reality-Based Community web log noted that Giffords’ life was saved by the quick first aid given by Daniel Hernandez and the expert surgery by Peter M. Rhee. Judging by their names, neither one is a Mayflower descendant. Click on Bad day for the haters for his full comment.
Republicans and conservatives have pointed out that the Democratic Leadership Council once circulated a political map with targeting symbols and military rhetoric. Click on DLC Heartland Strategy to read the article which the map illustrates.
[Update 1/10/11] I’m even less inclined than I was yesterday to find any larger political significance in the tragic shooting. And I am more inclined to concern myself with the content of what people say than the manner in which they express themselves.
Nick Gillespie of Reason magazine deplored the way some Democrats are trying to turn the tragedy to partisan advantage. He noted, however, that this kind of opportunism is not unique to Democrats. Click on The Instant Politicization of Everything for his complete comment.
Matt Welch of Reason magazine deplores the no-facts speculation about the shooter’s motives. Click on Probably Influenced By That Magazine He Doesn’t Subscribe To for his complete comment.
Jack Shafer of Slate magazine doesn’t see anything new about today’s violent language. Click on The awesome stupidity of the calls to tamp down political speech for his full comment.
Radley Balko, senior editor of Reason magazine, points out that more innocent Americans are killed by people with uniforms and badges at any given time than by anti-government extremists. Click on Violence, Government Violence and Anti-Government Rhetoric for his full statement on The Agitator web log.
[Update 1/11/11] There is no known reason to associate Jared Lee Loughner, the accused killer, with the Tea Party, Sarah Palin or any other political movement. On the other hand, there have other killings in which the gunman was inspired by right-wing rhetoric.
In July, 2008, a man named Jim David Atkinson entered the Knoxville (Tenn.) Unitarian Universalist Church and started shooting. He killed two people and wounded seven others before he was disarmed. He said his motive was to kill Democrats, liberals, African-Americans and gays because they were ruining the country; he owned books by Michael Savage, Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly.
Click on Knoxville Unitarian Universalist church shooting Wikipedia article for details. This is not the only example in the past few years of a crazy gunman going after liberals or government officials based on right-wing rhetoric.
Can Savage, Hannity and O’Reilly be blamed? I am sure they didn’t intend for their readers or listeners to shoot people. Atkinson was mentally unbalanced, and he might well have been set off by something else in the absence of Savage, Hannity or O’Reilly. It is like the relation of Hurricane Katrina to global climate change. There have always been hurricanes, and there is no basis to attribute any particular hurricane to the warming of the atmosphere. All we can say is that global warming may make violent storms more frequent.
The more I think about this, the more ambivalent and conflicted I become. I believe in civility in political discourse, and I try to practice what I preach. At the same time, I do not constrain my words out of consideration of what the craziest person in the world might make of them. We Americans should not allow the isolated actions of a few crazy violent people panic us into giving up fundamental First and Second Amendment rights.
The problem with talking over-much about overheated political rhetoric is that it gets in the way of talking about the truth or falsity of what is being said. My low opinion of Savage, Hannity and O’Reilly was the same before and after the Atkinson shooting, and it was based on the content of what they said rather than the manner in which they expressed themselves.
[Update 1/11/11]. Politico had an article last May about the upsurge in death threats against lawmakers in 2009. The common denominator seemed to be (1) history of mental illness, (2) owned lots of guns and (3) had recently suffered illness, the loss of a job or other misfortune. Click on FBI details surge in death threats against lawmakers to read the article.
[Update 1/12/11]. Here is Sarah Palin’s statement on the Arizona tragedy.
[1/14/11] I deleted my initial comments on the Palin video. It speaks for itself, and my comments didn’t add anything.
I added some comments by SF writer John Scalzi about prejudice against the mentally ill, which I later made into a separate post. Click on Let’s not demonize the mentally ill to read it.
[1/22/11] Self-described liberals and conservatives are now combing through Jared Loughner’s statements to see if they can find something that can be associated with the other side. The purpose of this is to find talking points to offset the talking points of the other side. It throws no light on what Loughner’s real motives might have been.
The lies spread by Sarah Palin and others about the Affordable Care Act – especially President Obama’s alleged plan to create “death panels” to cut off medical care for the old and sick – did, in my opinion, inspire the violence and threats directed against Rep. Gabrielle Gifford and others who voted for the law. But there is no evidence that Jared Loughner was part of this. Trying to link his actions with Sarah Palin’s words is a red herring.