Conservatives have been quick to repudiate – to brand as offensive and disgusting – any suggestion that the Tucson shooting was somehow inspired by the extreme anti-Obama political rhetoric of the past 2 years.
In this, conservatives have the facts on their side. By all reports, the Tucson shooter was a very mentally disturbed person. Even if Jared Lee Loughner was aware that Sarah Palin’s PAC had posted a gun sight next to Congresswoman Gifford’s name, that awareness cannot be translated into a motivation. It makes no sense to talk of the “motive” of someone who is fundamentally irrational.
That point should be acknowledged, accepted, and internalized.
Yet as we acknowledge that extremist rhetoric did not incite this crime, it should also be acknowledged that the rhetoric has been extreme, and potentially dangerously so. I wrote in April 2009:
A man bearing a sidearm appears outside President Obama’s Aug. 11 town hall meeting in Portsmouth, N.H., under a sign proclaiming, “It is time to water the tree of liberty.”
That phrase of course references a famous statement of Thomas Jefferson’s, from a 1787 letter: “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots & tyrants.”
Earlier that same day, another man is arrested inside the school building in which the president will speak. Police found a loaded handgun in his parked car.
At an event held by Rep. Gabrielle Giffords in Arizona last week, police were called after one attendee dropped a gun.
Nobody has been hurt so far. We can all hope that nobody will be. But firearms and politics never mix well. They mix especially badly with a third ingredient: the increasingly angry tone of incitement being heard from right-of-center broadcasters.
The Nazi comparisons from Rush Limbaugh; broadcaster Mark Levin asserting that President Obama is “literally at war with the American people”; former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin claiming that the president was planning “death panels” to extirpate the aged and disabled; the charges that the president is a fascist, a socialist, a Marxist, an illegitimate Kenyan fraud, that he “harbors a deep resentment of America,” that he feels a “deep-seated hatred of white people,” that his government is preparing concentration camps, that it is operating snitch lines, that it is planning to wipe away American liberties”: All this hysterical and provocative talk invites, incites, and prepares a prefabricated justification for violence.
Again: this talk did not cause this crime. But this crime should summon us to some reflection on this talk. Better: This crime should summon us to a quiet collective resolution to cease this kind of talk and to cease to indulge those who engage in it.