Unfair Connections of Sarah Palin to the Tucson Massacre Undermine a Serious Point

The Liberal Ironist is offering a retrospective on the political rhetoric following the massacre in Tucson in 2 parts.  This 1st part is a critique and re-focusing of the “incendiary rhetoric” charge that has been leveled against Conservative politicians like Mayor Palin.  (Note: If she wanted to be called “Governor” she should have serve for more than just over 2 years before resigning for reasons of image-control.)  This re-focusing owes much to Dana Milbank.  The 2nd, succeeding entry proposes a further re-focusing away from the usual refrains about gun control or suggestively-violent political rhetoric by Conservatives to a structural problem that both Liberals and Conservatives have overlooked.

Some of the defenses of Palin have been as hyperbolic as the insinuations against her; witness Glenn Reynolds’ op-ed sustenance of Palin’s assertions of a “blood libel” against her in the Wall Street Journal.  (Though I initially didn’t want to “go there,” I notice a certain cheapening of the impact that anti-Semitic accusations of human sacrifice used to have on Jewish communities throughout Europe; several Tea Party activists grabbed the spotlight claiming they were enslaved because they were required by law to pay taxes.  While such sentiments are not universal and cannot be called representative of the “Tea Party” movement, they do suggest an urgent want of perspective from those who make them.)  Ironically but not-unsurprisingly (or undeservedly), Palin has come under further fire for her use of this allegory that suggests she is an endangered victim of centuries of hate by association.

I find the defense of Mayor Palin a little overwrought–not because I believe she had anything to do with the massacre in Tucson, but because the 2 things I have seen her do most-passionately is hurl epithets at her political opponents and scream bloody murder when they hurl epithets back.  (I previously-discussed this in one of my few wholly-critical entries.)  She isn’t just a target of opportunity, she is a meaningful target of opportunity, because her criticism isn’t constructive, and she hasn’t contributed to the Conservative political program the way so many House Republicans and some Conservative Senators and Governors recently have.  A much calmer, more-illuminating Conservative retort to Palin’s attackers was offered by James Joyner on Outside the Beltway.

The unfortunate thing about this debate over Palin’s role in this (besides the fact that she really is a minor irritant who doesn’t really deserve the defense of so many Conservatives) is that it distorts the issue, which is that certain mainstream Conservative media personalities (not prominent Republican politicians) have irresponsibly engaged in the sort of talk we should expect to incite violence.  Neither Republican politicians nor “the Tea Party movement” can reasonably be held responsible for such aberrant insanity as that of the Tucson shooter, but a few months ago Dana Milbank raised some very perceptive criticisms of all the weirdly-violent talk by mainstream Conservative media.  He offered one such account about Bill O’Reilly last November, having given an even more-troubling anecdote about Glenn Beck a month earlier.

I agree that the fundamental issue is that this young man is simply insane; however, mounting evidence from the investigation suggests this man is also an anti-government ideologue.  While I agree the Tea Party movement didn’t somehow “cause” this to happen, this man was recently expelled from his college after angrily writing that his school’s existence was illegal under the Constitution.  Massacres carried out by individuals probably are generally a product of insanity, but the fact is that this man’s insane pronouncements reflect the sort of panicked talk that has flared in right-wing venues since President Obama was inaugurated.  The April 1995 Oklahoma City bombing occurred in a similar context–and at roughly the same point in a Democratic presidency.  While we have a pitiful N of 2 and thus cannot call this finding significant, no one has denied that paranoid delusions aren’t influenced by paranoid rhetoric, and even if they take on an idiosyncratic cast that is wholly the lunatic’s own, this is not to suggest they weren’t set in train by something in their environment.  Conservative ideology definitely isn’t responsible for a massacre like this, but provocative rhetoric about how the President is a socialist conspiring to injure our country, such as that made regularly by Glenn Beck, does make violence against our public officials more-likely.  Many forms of dissonance from Conservative defensiveness to the inevitable (and serious) slippery-slope concerns about free speech might discourage us from that connection, but the thorny implications don’t mean the problem isn’t real.  Dana Milbank has been making this point compellingly for months.


2 thoughts on “Unfair Connections of Sarah Palin to the Tucson Massacre Undermine a Serious Point

  1. Kukri

    “Anti-government ideologue” is only part of it. The man was, as corny as this sounds, against reality, period. He had a love of books/movies where people live in a state between the real world and dreams, to cite one tidbit of the many I’ve read in recent days. If you are against reality, naturally you will be against anyone who is in control of reality. A paranoid schizophrenic will, by definition, be paranoid of authority.

    1. liberalironist Post author

      It’s true that a paranoid schizophrenic is likely to have deep, delusional motivations completely independent of contemporary political rhetoric. It’s also true that, as Milbank wrote in the columns I linked to, Glenn Beck has repeatedly alleged that our President has conspired with numerous enemies of America real and imagined, and that Bill O’Reilly has joked about pundits he doesn’t like getting assaulted or even being killed, and on one occasion even showed his audience a man’s picture and encouraged them to harass him. At least on the few occasions I’ve watched Glenn Beck, the basic narrative principle of his show was the immanent and irrevocable takeover of our country by Socialists aiming to end America’s role as a force for good. This sort of talk (in Beck’s case often depending on irrelevancies and even outright falsehoods) does goad unstable people, and I’m concerned we’re overlooking that now because of the misguided and rather opportunistic attacks on Palin and Tea Partiers following the Tucson massacre.


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