A national tragedy occurred on the morning of January 8, 2011, when Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, hosting a small gathering of her constituents outside of a Safeway supermarket in Tucson, Arizona, was shot in the head at point-blank range by a 22-year-old named Jared Lee Loughner. Amidst a hail of indiscriminate gunfire, fourteen people were wounded, and six more lost their lives, including U.S. District Court Judge John Roll and a 9-year-old girl named Christina Taylor Green.
After the initial moments of shock and concern for the victims, particularly Rep. Giffords, attention began to focus on Loughner and the possible motives behind his attack. Several YouTube videos that he had posted in December emerged, including one evincing a hatred of the government for, among other things, its attempts at “mind-control” through the use of grammar and its decision to employ a currency not backed by gold. Such details added fuel to a fire which had begun to burn almost immediately after the shootings took place: the incendiary notion that the highly partisan rhetoric of the last few years was responsible for the day’s awful events.
This narrative was even echoed by Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik, who took time from reporting the facts emerging from the investigation to editorialize, “When you look at unbalanced people, how they respond to the vitriol that comes out of certain mouths about tearing down the government – the anger, the hatred, the bigotry that goes on in this country, is getting to be outrageous. And unfortunately, Arizona, I think, has become the capital. We have become the mecca for prejudice and bigotry.” During an interview with Fox News’ Megyn Kelly on Sunday, Dupnik offered further clarification for who he believes is responsible for the nation’s dark tenor, stating, “We see one party trying to block the attempts of another party to make this a better country.”
And so it is that the Republican Party, or, more accurately, the conservative Tea Party movement that has revived it over the last two years, has been accused of creating the monster known as Jared Lee Loughner. Keith Olbermann, taking to the airwaves Saturday night to comfort a grieving nation with a “Special Comment”, spent the majority of his address laying the blame at the feet of Glenn Beck, Bill O’Reilly and Sharron Angle. The left-leaning UK Guardian questioned whether “rightwing rhetoric” was responsible for the shootings. Perhaps the most over-the-top reaction came from New York Daily News columnist Michael Daly, who claimed that “Rep. Gabrielle Giffords’ blood is on Sarah Palin’s hands.” Apparently, Palin had had the audacity to illustrate the common political metaphor of “targeting” a district on her PAC’s website, marking close races on a map of the United States with what appear to be crosshairs. “[A]nyone with any sense at all knows that violent language can incite actual violence, that metaphor can incite murder,” Daly argues. “At the very least, Palin added to a climate of violence.” Set aside the fact that, as of the date that Mr. Daly’s article was published, very little was known about Loughner’s true political leanings and motivations, and absolutely nothing had emerged to link him with Sarah Palin or the Tea Party movement. Set aside the fact that what was found on Palin’s website was, again, simply a depiction of a common political term and was no different than what was found on the website of the Democratic Leadership Council. Does Mr. Daly not see any irony in arguing against overheated rhetoric with a column entitled “Rep. Gabrielle Giffords’ blood is on Sarah Palin’s hands”? Can one assume that if any violence were to come to Palin, her husband or any of their children, that Mr. Daly would accept the blame for ratcheting up the vitriol?
The meme that spread with viral speed through the media over the weekend, and which will continue to be repeated in the weeks to come, has found an accepting audience amongst two groups. The first are men like Olbermann and Daly, liberal political commentators, and the Democrats they seek to support. Their rationale for pinning the ultimate blame for these events on the right is clear, and it is surely not, despite their protestations, to bring unity to the nation: it is to advance a political agenda. Specifically, it is an attempt to buoy a liberal ideology that was soundly defeated last November by placing the blame for an unspeakable horror at the doorstep of the conservative opposition and its champions, notably Sarah Palin and Rush Limbaugh. A “veteran Democratic operative”, speaking to Politico, acknowledged as much, advising his ideological brethren that, “They need to deftly pin this on the tea partiers… Just like the Clinton White House deftly pinned the Oklahoma City bombing on the militia and anti-government people.”
And so these unabashed hypocrites take to the airwaves and proclaim that the rhetoric has reached unprecedented levels of negativity, pretending that the utter hatred directed over the course of two presidential terms at George W. Bush, and in recent years, at Sarah Palin and her family, was simply a civil difference of opinion. Ignore the 2006 film entitled Death of a President ,which depicted the assassination of President Bush (and was subsequently lauded with several international film awards). Ignore the fact that it was the left, led by Ted Kennedy, who introduced invective rhetoric into what had once been a collegial Supreme Court nomination process with a crass denunciation of Robert Bork in 1987. Ignore the fact that it was our president himself, the supposedly cool, collected centrist Barack Obama, who in 2008 rallied his supporters by saying, “If they bring a knife to the fight, we bring a gun,”and who, during the 2010 elections, implored Latinos to “punish” their Republican “enemies.” Per Olbermann, Paul Krugman, James Clyburn, Sheriff Dupnik and what will surely be a cavalcade of others during the coming weeks, the dangers of partisan dispute did not truly begin until the inauguration of our 44th President on January 20, 2009.
That this group of Democrats and liberal commentators should drive this line of thinking, aided and abetted by a supposedly impartial “mainstream media”, is not surprising: they have much to gain, either politically or financially, by not letting this crisis go to waste. What is more disappointing, and in many ways more dangerous to the future of our nation, is the second group: those who earnestly believe that the true blame for Saturday morning’s events lies with a former Alaska governor and groups of middle-class Americans concerned about taxation and growing debt. The willingness to blame rhetoric, words, no matter how heated, for the actions of a deranged young man signal a growing decline in the value of personal responsibility.
Suppose for a moment that Loughner’s YouTube videos had indicated vociferous support for the Tea Party, or that he had truly been inspired by seeing the “crosshairs” on the SarahPAC site. Why would that have made the Tea Party or Sarah Palin responsible for Loughner’s actions? Did any of them force him into the Safeway parking lot, or pull the trigger of his Glock 19? Pulling back, is the message of the Tea Party violent overthrow of the government? Does Sarah Palin advocate the literal assassination of her political opponents? Does she, or any politician for that matter, have complete control over how every individual interprets their words and actions? At what point do we stop excusing the actions of evil men and women by arguing that society drove them to their crimes? At what point do we assign the blame in this instance to the young man who decided to purchase a gun, murder six individuals and wound fourteen others?
I am shocked to read the words of my late-20’s, early-thirtysomething friends, cavalierly assigning culpability for this massacre in their Facebook postings to the conservative opposition to President Obama. To those of you who have accepted that line of reasoning and who may be reading this: Set aside your own political ideology for just a moment. Doesn’t it anger you on some visceral level that the individuals you support politically, or follow in the media, don’t find you, or your fellow citizens, competent enough to hear debate and opposing viewpoints without potentially resorting to violence? To put it another way, would you feel comfortable accepting the blame for the wrongs of another simply because they misinterpreted something you had said with wholly innocent intentions? Why have you deemed such a rationale adequate in the context of our national discourse?
There is a difference between a true extremist and someone engaging in honest disagreement over some of the most serious issues of our time. While it is undeniable that there are “right-wing loons”, true radicals, the majority of conservatives and Republicans are peaceful, average Americans with legitimate concerns for their future. Contrary to Sheriff Dupnik’s naïve interpretation, neither party has a monopoly on the truth, or goodness, and it is utterly disingenuous to argue that one side is trying to “make the country better” while the other is simply attempting to block this progress out of spite. To suggest that Americans who are concerned about a national debt that just topped $14 trillion, and which threatens to undermine our financial security in generations to come, are a threat to our safety, or that those concerned about a federal intrusion into the private health care system are insidious and lacking any claim to credibility, is absurd. If you disagree with that statement, simply look at the argument from an alternate perspective: If the conservative movement ever achieved a 5-4 majority on the Supreme Court, would the liberals among you sit idly by as Roe v. Wade was overturned? Would you keep quiet in the interest of civility if a Republican president enforced an Arizona-type immigration law nationwide, or led us into war with Iran? Or, would you come together to ensure that the people in authority heard your voice as loudly as possible?
Just as you would be entitled to raise your opposition, conservative groups, commentators and politicians are permitted to speak their opinions on the issues of the present day, as passionately as they choose, thanks to our nation’s Constitution. As long as they are not making actual threats of violence, they are protected under the very First Amendment that Rep. Giffords read on the House floor last week. Any attempts to stifle such expression should be viewed as the true danger to our society. It would be the ultimate imposition of the nanny state that has begun its slow creep into our daily lives: If the government can decide what you are, and are not, allowed to hear, it means that it can control every aspect of your daily life. It is a tacit acceptance that you, as an individual with free will, are incapable of making proper decisions for yourself, and an assertion that you simply cannot be trusted to properly construe the words that, dare I say, assault you on a day-to-day basis.
If that is the case, if Americans, specifically our nation’s youth, are willing to accept such intrusive supervision, then we have lost far more than the six unfortunate individuals who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time in Tucson: our liberty will have been a casualty as well.