Shooter’s Derangement Points to Need for More Civility in Politics

Sarah Palin and everyone associated with her political action committee are, no doubt, regretting the boneheaded decision to superimpose crosshairs on the districts of Gabrielle Giffords and other House members Palin was “targeting” in the 2010 campaign.

But it’s easy to make too much of the ad, and there was support for Palin from an unlikely source today.  Writing in The Daily Beast, Tina Brown’s left-leaning news and opinion site, former WaPo media columnist Howie Kurtz, puts it in perspective:

The use of the crosshairs was dumb. But it’s a long stretch from such excessive language and symbols to holding a public official accountable for a murderer who opens fire on a political gathering and kills a half-dozen people, including a 9-year-old girl….

This isn’t about a nearly year-old Sarah Palin map; it’s about a lone nutjob who doesn’t value human life….

Let’s be honest: Journalists often use military terminology in describing campaigns. We talk about the air war, the bombshells, targeting politicians, knocking them off, candidates returning fire or being out of ammunition. So we shouldn’t act shocked when politicians do the same thing. Obviously, Palin should have used dots or asterisks on her map. But does anyone seriously believe she was trying to incite violence?

Others on the left side of the media spectrum reacted more predictably.  In The New Yorker, George Packer wrote:

[F]or the past two years, many conservative leaders, activists, and media figures have made a habit of trying to delegitimize their political opponents. Not just arguing against their opponents, but doing everything possible to turn them into enemies of the country and cast them out beyond the pale. Instead of “soft on defense,” one routinely hears the words “treason” and “traitor.” The President isn’t a big-government liberal—he’s a socialist who wants to impose tyranny. He’s also, according to a minority of Republicans, including elected officials, an impostor…. This relentlessly hostile rhetoric has become standard issue on the right. (On the left it appears in anonymous comment threads, not congressional speeches and national T.V. programs.)

Packer falls into the common trap of believing that the opposition is uniquely guilty of inflammatory tactics and statements.  I’ve written about this phenomenon before — see, for example, “Don’t Blame Me for Rush Limbaugh, I Won’t Blame You for Michael Moore,” and “Left Vs. Right: Who Has the Best Echo Chamber?

Packer tries to inoculate himself with a lame aside about “anonymous comment threads.”  But Checkpoint, a 2004 novella based on a fictional plot to assassinate then-President George W. Bush, was not published in an anonymous comment thread, nor even by an obscure publishing house.  It was published by Knopf, a storied 95-year-old imprint and a division of Random House.  (Yes, I know that’s only one example.  But it’s one more specific example than Packer gave.)

Jonathan Tobin at “Contentions” puts his finger on a double standard:

As the political left seeks to use the Arizona tragedy to tar all conservatives with the brush of the murderer, there is another point to remember here. In the past few years, there have been several shootings and terrorists attacks carried out or attempted by American Muslims who were clearly influenced by extremist Islam.

Yet every time such a crime happens, liberals loudly warn us that an examination of the motives of those who carry out such attacks is beyond the pale, since such ruminations might be prejudicial to Muslims, even if the truth is that those crimes were influenced by Islam.

When a crime has a seriously deranged perpetrator, like the young man who opened fire in Tucson yesterday, it’s counterproductive to speculate about where the suspect falls on the left-right political spectrum. There’s plenty of inflammatory rhetoric on both sides, and the whole point of realizing that the perp is a nutcase is to understand that his political opinions are not based on reality.

Since the shooting, the New York Times has published two separate articles about “a wrenching debate” or “a wrenching process of soul-searching” over the lack of civility in America’s public discourse.  Let’s hope this soul-searching continues past the current news cycle.

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