Almost instantaneously the horrific shooting in Tucson, Ariz., became the occasion for partisan hatred.
It’s one thing to charge your opponents with increasing the debt or serving the interests of the rich; it’s quite another to say they are accomplices to mass murder. In the ostensible (and always worthy) cause of civility, prominent liberals rushed to blame conservatives, and especially Sarah Palin, for the mayhem in Tucson.
Palin’s offense was posting a map on Facebook with a bull’s-eye marking the districts of 20 Democrats she wished to see defeated. On the list was Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, the target of Tucson shooter Jared Loughner. To connect Palin’s map to Loughner’s criminal act requires a massive leap that her detractors executed with ease, since they feel they have warrant to say anything about her without regard to evidence, logic or — ahem — civility.
Palin’s martial imagery wasn’t just innocuous, it was a tattered cliche. American politics runs on metaphors drawn from war, and has at least since the 19th century. What journalist didn’t write about “targeted” districts or candidates in the last midterm election? Why do we say “campaign” and “rank and file,” or refer to “battles” and “war rooms”? None of this has ever before been taken as an incitement to violence. Then again, never before was it a club with which to bludgeon the hated Sarah Palin, while nattering on about how our politics should be less venomous.
Loughner may have been obsessed with Rep. Giffords as much as three years ago, before anyone had heard of Sarah Palin, before the tea party, before the rise of our alleged “climate of hate” in response to President Barack Obama’s election. Loughner attended an August 2007 town-hall meeting and left angered at Giffords’ inability to answer a nonsensical question: “What is government if words have no meaning?”
Loughner’s profile fits that of the Virginia Tech shooter — a disturbed individual whose strange behavior frightened his classmates and his friends. The chances are his case will be another in the sad annals of the untreated mentally ill doing harm to themselves and others. Except ghoulish political opportunists have latched on to this crime.
The political use of Tucson is the latest blast against a tea party that the left will never consider legitimate. First it was AstroTurf, then it was racist, now it is murderous. It’s hard to see what could be next in this progression. Perhaps Palin really intended her targeted congressional districts to be wiped out in their entirety in an act of genocide? By calling conservative rhetoric “eliminationist,” the left is already on the cusp of this escalation.
It is a time for deep breaths all around. The Tucson shooter shattered lives and, in targeting a public official, attacked our democracy. The stories of the victims are unbearably sad, and of the heroes unbelievably inspiring. In its horror — another mass shooting — and in its uplift — the pluck of the grievously wounded Giffords, the miracles of modern medicine, the kindness and courage of strangers — it’s an event that should be larger than tawdry partisanship and unsupported finger-pointing.
Our new era of civility is off to a rocky start.
Lowry is editor of the National Review.