If the pundit class were merely seeking to use the Tucson shootings as an opportunity to open a debate on civility in American life, that would simply be a case of misguided opportunism. There is a time and a place for such a debate. A better time would be when the dead are buried and the wounded have recovered, and when cooler heads can prevail in such a debate. Overheated rhetoric is misplaced in a debate about overheated rhetoric. I have not heard anyone on these pages suggest that our public discourse could not be more charitable toward our political adversaries — they aren’t, as the president has suggested perhaps without thinking, our enemies, even when our policy preferences are irreconcilable.
But a mere invitation to a public debate on civility is not what is happening now. The punditocracy is looking to cast blame in a misguided attempt to make sense of what appears to be a senseless act. And their target is, as the TNR column that Ramesh linked to last night suggests, “hate speech on the right.” That goes beyond misguided opportunism and amounts to craven mudslinging.
As has been noted here repeatedly, there is not an iota of evidence that this particular shooter was affected or even aware of the political debate around him. Had he seen the “targeting” language that has been so prevalent in the accusations? When someone uncovers some indication that he had, then there might at least be an excuse for raising the question. Until then, we might as well be debating whether global-warming alarmism has some propensity to affect the mentally disturbed mind. Lacking evidence, such a suggestion is as preposterous as Chris Matthews’ suggestion that Mark Levin somehow incited violence here. (Incidentally, the many times I have heard Mark invite his listeners to call their congressman or senator, he emphasizes expressly that any complaints should be made politely and with utmost civility.)
I don’t purport to be an expert in psychology, but it seems pretty apparent that any range of things could affect the mentally unstable — a desire to impress an actress, a concern about government control of grammar, political issues of the day, etc. Our civic discourse can’t be driven by the impact it might have on the irrational mind. No sane person would construe Sarah Palin’s “target” symbolism — however well designed — as a call to assassination. And indeed, no insane person has, as far as we can tell, done so. There is much to criticize in today’s political rhetoric on both sides of the aisle. And no doubt that many Republican candidates have said some wickedly stupid things on the stump. But so too have Democrats. Cringing is a natural by-product of the political process.
Any claim that one side of the debate has a monopoly on overheated rhetoric is laughable. As a former employee of Dick Cheney, I’ve seen enough examples of the Left’s wishing him ill to last a lifetime. For one such example, take Wonkette’s stories last summer after news of Vice President Cheney’s continued heart troubles, entitled “Waiting for Dick Cheney to die? Get a chair.” Or Bill Maher’s 2007 suggestion that fewer people would be dead if Dick Cheney were to have been killed in an attack at Bagram Air Base. (Maher later clarified that he did not wish Cheney dead.) Nor was President Bush spared the bile. The 2006 film Death of a President was a mockumentary based on his assassination, which a New York Times reviewer deemed “neither terribly outrageous nor especially heroic.” Now, would our political debate be better off without such incendiary commentary? Probably, but that is the nature of free debate. There will be some irresponsible voices in the mix. But that doesn’t mean that we can hold Wonkette or Bill Maher accountable every time a political figure is targeted by an unstable person.
One final story — it may not prove my point, but it is amusing nonetheless. Checking my voice mail one day while working for Cheney, I found a message, not intended for me or anyone in particular, from an elderly woman wishing the Vice President (and President Bush, I recall) dead. No obvious threat, but enough for me to forward the message to the head of our Secret Service detail. The poor dear, upset about the War in Iraq or some such matter, had unfortunately left a forwarding phone number on my caller ID. So she got a visit from the local branch office of the Service, who takes these things seriously and wanted to confirm that she was simply little more than an irritated taxpayer. Turns out she was a 78-year-old retiree living on a pension with her husband. She did not really plan to kill anyone, but she probably won’t be making any more such calls anytime soon.