The all-American sport of reacting rather than acting began in earnest within hours of the tragic shootings in Tucson on Saturday and everyone from the President to Geraldo Rivera are pointing a finger at the violence-tinged rhetoric that has been swirling through the airwaves and social media for the last two years.
Sarah Palin is getting a lot of the blow-back because one of the ammunition-themed calls to action which so delight her dimmer followers was specifically aimed, if you will, at Representative Giffords. Palin, however, has been sparing in these references compared to Michelle Bachmann, Sharon Engle, Glen Beck, and others. While the left is pointing at the right with rather unseemly glee, the right has, so far, been smart enough to keep their heads down and any responses have been subdued. Those who have spoken merely joined the chorus decrying the national "tone" of discourse.
All very high-minded and noble, but let me tell you exactly where it is all going to end.
Jared Loughner, the apparent shooter, certainly appears to be unbalanced. My initial reaction to his My Space page was to wonder why no one had noticed he was wandering around without a keeper. If you can wade through his contributions to social media, his political leanings, grievances, or whatever the hell they are seem to center around currency and bad grammar. We don't know if he listens to Beck or Rush or even knows that Palin exists. The shrinks, the talking heads, and the FBI are already pouring through his writings and videos, and interviewing everyone who has crossed his path. Eventually they will reach one of three conclusions.
1. He is a right wing nut
2. He is a left wing nut
3. He is just nuts.
If the answer is Number One or Two, one political side will claim vindication and spend weeks joyfully bashing the other, further antagonizing one set of fringe elements and emboldening another. If the verdict is Number Three, then the right will rage at the left for so quickly assigning blame.
As I listen to the Sunday shows the revisionism is underway. We don't know, the story line goes, if this guy was politically motivated or not. We must not jump to that conclusion until we have more information. Dick Army uttered the ultimate inanity; it will be the fields of psychiatry and psychology that ultimately define the reasons behind the attack, not sociology or political science. In other words, if we find Loughner is just plain crazy, if we cannot directly peg the murder of six on a suburban Saturday to a political agenda, then no harm no foul and no longer any concern about what we say and how we say it
Palin probably won't ever again use gun sights in her political ads, Beck will dial back his musings about strangling Michael Moore, and we probably had already heard the last from Carl Paladino. But within months the screaming and yelling that passes for political debate on cable television and the demonization of the other side of the Congressional aisle will be back. The real lesson will have passed right over everyone's head.
Folks, it damn well doesn't matter whether Loughner is a creature of politics or not. Note the words of Sheriff Clarence Dupnik of Pima County, Arizona: "When you look at unbalanced people, how they respond to the vitriol that comes out of certain mouths about tearing down the government," he said. 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."
The Sheriff does not mention violent speech; he is talking about hate. And somehow, in the last few years, hate has become socially acceptable. We now have permission not just to harbor it deep in our soul but to yell it from the rooftops. Private individuals go public with scurrilous remarks about Blacks, Latinos, immigrants, Gays, liberals, conservatives, Muslims, and Jews. Public individuals including past and present office holders, entertainers, sports idols, even religious leaders, have amped up their vilification of the same. We reward the private individual trolling on a website or spewing ignorance at a town meeting with instant attention; maybe an angry rebuttal, maybe U-Tube fame. The payback for the public person is more pernicious; attention yes, but also better ratings, higher book sales, larger contributions, bigger congregations. Ann Coulter was one of the early practitioners of public hate and it made her a millionaire. No penalty has ever accrued to her for her venomous anger; she is invited to speak at colleges and conventions and is even defended by the likes of Bill Maher. Why shouldn't her behavior be a template for the book tours and political rallies of others?
A week or so from now we must not conclude that remarks about Second Amendment remedies or calls to "take out" a political opponent did not provoke the Tucson carnage and resume our defense of violent speech as free speech. But the violent words and imagery must stop because there could be a hundred Jared Loughners and they might have both a mental defect and a political philosophy. But beyond that, we have to stop the talk that divides everyone into "them" and "us." The environment is now so toxic and filled with hate that a deranged person can reasonably conclude that acting out his grievance with a bomb, knife, or gun will, if directed at "them," certainly receive approval from "us." Words like Anti-Christ, Communist, baby killer, traitor, Nazi, or Fascist, are not themselves calls to violence but very nicely set the stage.