Baltimore Sun

The Tucson shooting and the rhetoric of violence

The shooting Saturday of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona and 19 others is not Sarah Palin's fault. Based on what is known so far, it appears to have had nothing to do with the tea party, with discontent about the health care reform law or with immigration policy. There has been a natural inclination among public officials — most notably, Pima County, Ariz., Sheriff Clarence Dupnik — to seek a connection between the vitriolic state of American politics and the mass shooting outside a Tucson supermarket. But all the information revealed so far about the accused shooter, Jared Lee Loughner, suggests that mental illness, not the tone in Washington, is most likely to blame.

Nonetheless, the attempted assassination serves as a stark rebuke to the invective Ms. Palin and some tea party leaders have so casually employed.

Mr. Loughner does not appear to have been connected in any way with the tea party, and it is unlikely that he was motivated by the poster Ms. Palin distributed during the fall campaign that depicted crosshairs over several targeted congressional districts, including Ms. Giffords'. Mr. Dupnik suggested in a television interview that "unbalanced people" are emboldened to action by the "vitriolic rhetoric we hear day in and day out," but the ravings Mr. Loughner left in Internet postings don't reflect any clear connection to that rhetoric. The closest he came was some incoherent babble about the gold standard.

Indeed, material federal investigators found in a safe in Mr. Loughner's home suggests that he had been angry at Ms. Giffords for several years after having met her at a constituent event — not unlike the one he is accused of attacking Saturday — in 2007. His motives, such as they were, appear to be his own, and the descent into isolation and anti-social behavior described by associates is unconnected with politics.

But what the attack does tell us about the state of politics today is that the inflation of legitimate differences of opinion about the best course for the nation into the language of treason, and the metaphoric connection of today's debate with the armed resistance to tyranny, is wildly inappropriate. Putting crosshairs over congressional districts, in a world where threats against our elected representatives are on the rise, is not cute, and it is not funny. Former U.S. Senate candidate Sharron Angle blithely suggested that people would need to explore "Second Amendment remedies" if their political leaders didn't change course; what happened Saturday is, by logical extension, what that means.

Leaders in the Republican Party and the tea party movement have decried Saturday's violence, but that rings hollow after their failure to condemn the political rhetoric of violence that has grown all too common during the last two years. This particular attack may not have been motivated by such talk, but many others were, including the vandalizing of Ms. Giffords' office (and those of a number of other representatives) after the health care vote, the threats the bill's supporters received and the ugly imagery opponents of the bill employed, such as the placement of a coffin in the yard of a Democrat who voted for the bill.

Conservative media figures played down the threats, suggesting that Democrats had brought them on themselves by passing legislation that Americans disliked. But they emerged in a toxic atmosphere abetted by the rhetoric of mainstream Republicans. When GOP leaders encouraged the falsehood that health care reform would include the creation of death panels; when Rep. Joe Wilson of South Carolina yelled "You lie!" during President Barack Obama's address to Congress on health care reform; and when Rep. Randy Neugebauer of Texas yelled "Baby killer" at Rep. Bart Stupak during the floor debate on the bill, they suggested that the stakes were so extreme that they warranted extreme measures.

Democrats have not been completely innocent of using language that turns opponents into enemies, but there is no doubt that most of it has flowed the other way. Republicans and tea party leaders may not deserve any blame in Saturday's shooting, but confronted with what political violence actually looks like, they need to abandon the rhetoric and imagery that sanctions it.