Sunday, January 16, 2011

Violent Talk In the Cross Hairs

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The carnage staggers the mind. Twenty people shot. Six dead, including a 9-year-old girl. A U.S. congresswoman in the hospital after being shot in the head.

Within 20 minutes of news of the shootings appearing on the Internet, the Good Americans over at the conservative site were attempting to pin the shootings on Nancy Pelosi and (of course) illegal immigrants, while simultaneously deploring the fact that the “libs” were going to try to “politicize this.”

On the other end of the spectrum, people began pointing out statements from some tea partiers about “Second Amendment remedies” and “watering the tree of liberty with the blood of tyrants” and other such promises of violence if they didn’t get their way.

They took note of Sarah Palin’s now-notorious “cross hairs” ad and her exhortation after the health-care vote: “Don’t retreat — reload!” The Palinistas indignantly denied there was anything wrong with this or any connection with the shootings, even as as they scrambled to take the “cross hairs” website down.

So each side is trying to blame the other. The more I learn about this shooter, though, the more it appears he was piling crazy on his plate from the entire buffet line. He goes off about the gold standard like a faithful Ron Paulian, and lists as one of his favorite books one by Ayn Rand, who’s big among tea partiers (Rand Paul is named after her).

But then he also says he’s a fan of “Mein Kampf” AND the Communist Manifesto. He once told a fellow student that he thought abortion was murder, but he also smoked a lot of weed and didn’t believe in God. A friend who was interviewed shortly after the killings compared Loughner to the nihilistic Joker in “The Dark Knight”: “There’s no rhyme or reason, he wants to watch the world burn.”

So there’s no way to draw a bright line link between the violent rhetoric of Sarah Palin or Sharron Angle, or the radio talk show host in Florida who was about to become the chief of staff of a newly elected tea party candidate before a video surfaced of her shouting to a cheering crowd that “if ballots don’t work, bullets will.”

All that said, the Palinistas and their fellow travelers on the right can spare us the righteous indignation about how awful it is that people are criticizing their violent language.

As writer John Scalzi put it: “If your political messaging traffics in rhetoric heavy on gun imagery and revolution of the overthrow-y sort, then when someone shoots a congressperson who you opposed, then guess what: You get to spend some uncomfortable moments in the spotlight being asked if it’s not reasonable to suspect a connection between your rhetoric and the actions of a shooter targeting someone you’ve opposed.”

If, for example, I put up a website with cross hairs over John Boehner’s name, and Boehner, God forbid, gets shot, then I don’t get to be all indignant if people ask about a connection. The people who quote Barack Obama’s reference to the movie “The Untouchables” (“If they bring a knife to the fight, I bring a gun”) seem to have forgotten one essential difference: No one has actually put a bullet in John Boehner’s head.

The question of whether hateful right-wing rhetoric “caused” Jared Loughner to kill six people and grievously wound 14 others is a separate question as to whether it’s bad for the country to use the language of guns and bullets and shedding “the blood of tyrants” if a vote didn’t go your way.

Sure, you’ve got a right, absent a direct threat, to say any damn fool thing you want. But people also have the right to call you on it. In the words of former Bush speechwriter David Frum: “This talk did not cause this crime. But this crime should summon us to some reflection on this talk.”

If any good thing comes out of this tragedy, it may be that, despite the right wing’s belligerent insistence that “it wasn’t us,” they’ll start thinking twice before blithely deploying rhetoric that hints of bloodshed and killing over things like marginal tax rates.

I don’t think we’ll hear Barack Obama talking about “knives and guns” any time soon. Will Sarah Palin exercise the same restraint? We live in hope.