Four days after the premeditated shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, Sarah Palin has issued a video from her Alaskan bunker denouncing her critics as perpetrating a “blood libel.” Palin does this because the body politic has been revulsed by the assasination attempt and any connection with her inflammatory rhetoric. Her career and a possible presidential run are at risk. She has clearly decided that her only possible defence is to aggressively deny any hint of responsibility and to attack anyone who thinks that her map had anything on it but surveyors’ symbols.
Palin takes her lead from the conservative trope that Jared Loughner acted purely out of an irrational murderous instinct that had no connection with the current political climate. As Newt Gingrich put it: “There’s no evidence that I know of, that this person was anything except nuts.”
A more sophisticated presentation of the same view was given by NY Times columnist David Brooks: “there was, and is, no evidence that Loughner was part of these [Tea Party] movements or a consumer of their literature. [Accusations] were made despite the fact that the link between political rhetoric and actual violence is extremely murky. They were vicious charges made by people who claimed to be criticizing viciousness.”
Palin’s cowardly denials do not merit any reply. Brooks, however, makes a claim to intellectual respectability. By minimizing any connection between political rhetoric and violence he is jumping through logical hoops to draw a moral equivalence between the left’s accusations and right-wing demagogy, in the name of a false “moderation.”
Whether or not Loughner was inspired by the rhetoric, there is good reason to criticize the right’s poisoning of political discourse. There is evidence, for those who care to look, that disturbed individuals have indeed found justifications for violence from radio ranters. For example, according to the Arizona Republican, “Maricopa County Supervisor Mary Rose Wilcox was wounded in 1997 after an especially divisive vote to build a new baseball stadium for the Arizona Diamondbacks. ‘The man who shot me said he had heard on the radio time and time that I should be taken out,’ she said Monday. ‘I still hear that. People think if they take me down, then the issue will go away, but it won’t.’”
Both Dana Milbank of the Washington Post and Robert Wright in the NY Times cite the case of a certain Byron Williams, who, after pleading not guilty to four counts of attempted murder of a police officer in California, “said he had been on a mission to kill people at the liberal Tides Foundation, which happens to be a favorite [Glenn] Beck target.”
Milbank reviewed interviews Williams gave to Media Matters and Examiner.com. “Williams told the Examiner that he already knew about Tides before he heard Beck speak about it in June; rather, ‘to me it was more of a confirmation of what I already knew,’ he said. Exactly. Beck, who has encouraged his followers to hear what he is saying ‘between the sentences’ he actually utters, gave legitimacy to Williams’s conspiracy theories. ‘So now they’ve got Beck labeled as this guy that is trying to incite violence, and what I say is that if the truth incites violence, it means that we’ve been living too long in the lies,’ Williams told [Media Matters correspondent] Hamilton. ‘You know, when you become unemployed, desperate, you can no longer pay your bills… what do you think is gonna happen? You know, for crying out loud. It’s gonna get worse, and more and more people are gonna get desperate.’”
Calling Loughner crazy does not explain why his obsessions took the form they did. Even if he never listened to radio talk shows, there is a deeper connection between the anxiety, fear, and desperation felt by people in the U.S. today and the trend to political violence. Politicians on the right have leveraged this fear and their statements have given legitimacy to anti-government and anti-immigrant extremism. By demonizing their opponents they have provided a justification for violence – ranging from verbal abuse, spitting and shoving, to actual threats of murder.
As Wright argues, “the more incendiary theme in current discourse is the consignment of Americans to the category of alien, of insidious other. Once Glenn Beck had sufficiently demonized people at the Tides Foundation, actually advocating the violence wasn’t necessary. By the same token, Palin’s much-discussed cross-hairs map probably isn’t as dangerous as her claim that ‘socialists’ are trying to create ‘death panels.’ If you convince enough people that an enemy of the American way is setting up a system that could kill them, the violent hatred will take care of itself.”