Since no one knows yet if right-wing rhetoric played any twisted — and wholly unintended — role in triggering Jared Lee Loughner’s horrific massacre, the discussion of the influence of that rhetoric is massively premature. But it is also unavoidable. I don’t think that questioning the possible role of political discourse in this tragedy merely represents callous opportunism on the part of the Left; it is a salutary human instinct after a tragedy of this dimension to search for any possible collective responsibility, even if that collectivity rarely includes oneself. And let’s not pretend that if a Republican politician had been shot during the Bush years, no one on the Right would have blamed anti-Bush “war criminal” rhetoric as a possible contributor. And of course, in such a scenario, almost all of the Left would have been just as outraged at being inculpated in an act over which it had no control. If a police officer is shot in cold blood, I myself am not immune from wondering if anti-cop rhetoric by left-wing activists fed into the murder.
Homicidal madness does not need political demagoguery to trigger the slaughter of innocent people. In the last year, there have been many mass killings that had no apparent political overlay. That does not mean, however, that demagoguery may not on rare occasions sometimes be part of that trigger. Indeed, rhetoric and ideas inevitably contribute to individual actions. The question then becomes, are the purveyors of extremist rhetoric at all responsible for the extremely rare violence that may result when a crazed individual takes their rhetoric as partial inspiration for murder? I don’t see a hard and fast answer here, or one that is independent of one’s politics. To deny any responsibility for rhetoric under any conditions without an inquiry into its content and context seems to me to be too hard and fast a position, and yet the very definition of “extremist rhetoric” is obviously in the eye of the beholder. One man’s preposterous exaggeration is another’s sober evaluation of reality. I find the charges that Obama hates America and intends to destroy it ludicrous and, yes, gratuitously inflammatory. And yet I know that many smart, sober people believe — in sincerest good faith — that such charges are literally true. By supporting the Arizona immigration law, I believe that I am merely standing up for the rule of law and for a sober evaluation of the facts on the ground. I would strenuously reject the charge that I am engaged in “hate speech,” yet that charge is also made in good faith. Sarah Palin’s bull’s-eye targets on Democratic districts disturb me; if I were a gun enthusiast, I might feel differently. And those targets pale in comparison to inflammatory political caricatures and cartoons from the past.
Extreme political rhetoric has always existed; today’s right-wing demagogues are no more fantastical in their predictions of doom and denunciations of the malign motives of their opponents than both right- and left-wing demagogues in centuries past.
So one can only engage in a highly context-specific, case-by-case evaluation. Is political violence becoming anything of a trend, or is it, as yesterday, a rare aberration? The more it looks like a trend, the more the responsibility might fall on the part of speakers to disclaim any possible sanctioning of violence. At this point, we are thankfully far from such a situation. I don’t think we are anywhere near the state where a fierce critic of Obama needs to add, “And by the way, I don’t want to kill him,” even if the possibility that someone could be so inspired cannot be completely dismissed.
If Loughner was at all inspired by political rhetoric, there is no way to completely prevent such horrible tragedies without restrictions that would shut off free society. Even saying that the best solution at this point is not to inhibit political speech but rather to try to intercept madness before it becomes homicidal, is a falsely reassuring panacea. Predicting such violence in individuals is almost impossible and there will be far more false positives than false negatives.
I would like to be able to say that the real reason to ratchet down the rhetoric is to bring it more in line with reality, not because it leads to murder. Yet, again, I recognize that for most people, their rhetoric is their reality. Nevertheless, it can’t hurt to scrutinize our speech for its conformity to the truth.