Falsely accusing the Tea Party of murder

Liberal commentators’ rush to blame the shooting of Gabrielle Giffords on heated political rhetoric exposes their censoriousness and intolerance.

Sean Collins
US correspondent

Topics USA

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America was shocked to hear on Saturday about the gunman who shot Arizona congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords in the head at her public meeting outside a Safeway supermarket in Tucson. Nineteen others were wounded, six fatally, and as I write Giffords remains in critical condition.

As this sad and tragic event reverberated across America, political commentators sought to find a larger meaning. Even though all the facts weren’t in, a theme quickly emerged: this violent act was the result of a malicious tone in the country’s political discourse. A New York Times headline, ‘Bloodshed puts new focus on vitriol in politics’, summed up the prevalent discussion. Even Clarence Dupnik, the local sheriff in Tucson, was moved to make a broader observation: ‘The anger, the hatred, the bigotry that goes on in this country is getting to be outrageous, and unfortunately Arizona has become sort of the capital. We have become the mecca for prejudice and bigotry.’ Rhetoric ‘may be free speech’, said Dupnik, ‘but it’s not without consequences’.

Dupnik and others did not identify any one group as the source of the vitriol, but that was really unnecessary: everyone knew that this referred to Sarah Palin and the Tea Party. Many on the liberal-left felt no compunction to hold back. Before the name of the gunman was revealed, prominent blogger Markos Moulitsas tweeted: ‘Mission accomplished, Sarah Palin.’ Moulitsas also blamed ‘the American Taliban’, thus capitalising on an assassination attempt to get in a plug for his book of that title.

Sarah Palin’s controversial
target list

Superficially, the shooting at first seemed it might be a political act that directly implicated the Tea Party. Giffords is a Democrat, and she narrowly retained her seat in November after a heated contest against a Tea Party-backed candidate. When Giffords’ father was asked if she had any enemies, he replied, ‘Yeah, the whole Tea Party’. Last year, Sarah Palin’s political action committee produced a map that showed a series of contested congressional districts with gun targets trained on them, and Giffords’ was one of them. Even Giffords herself seemed to have warned about violence, when she criticised Palin in March for using such gun-related imagery: ‘We’re on Sarah Palin’s targeted list. But the thing is the way that she has it depicted has the cross hairs of a gun sight over our district. When people do that, they’ve got to realise that there’s consequences to that.’

Given these observations, it was understandable for people to start to raise questions. There was obviously a political dimension to the attack, considering it was an attempt to kill an elected representative. But that did not necessarily mean that it was political in content, nor that a certain group could be blamed for it. And as time elapsed and we learned more about the accused gunman, the theory of a political act fell apart.

For it is becoming clear that 22-year-old Jared Lee Loughner is a deranged individual, not a political ideologue. He did not espouse Tea Party ideology, nor is there any evidence that he was inspired by Palin. His ramblings on YouTube and MySpace were incoherent nonsense about mind control, grammar and creating a currency. If anything, as many conservatives pointed out, there was as much evidence pointing to Loughner being a disgruntled liberal (no Tea Partier would name The Communist Manifesto as one of his favorite books, said Republican senator Lamar Alexander). It turned out that Moulitsas’ Daily Kos website also had Giffords on a target list with a bullseye, and a liberal constituent on his site declared her ‘dead to me’ – and so Kos moved promptly to pull both pages off the site.

In no way can Palin and the Tea Partiers be held responsible for this senseless act. Some might find Palin’s gun cross-hairs map distasteful, but it is a metaphor not an explicit exhortation for violence. For decades both parties have used military rhetoric to describe their political campaigns. The Democrats recently used maps with bullseyes and missiles on them (see here).

Even if the shooter had been a paid-up member of the Tea Party who declared ‘I did it because I saw Palin’s gun-sight map’, Palin and the Tea Party would not be culpable. Only the person who pulled the trigger is responsible. People are not brainwashed robots taking commands. Just as video games and movies do not cause individuals to undertake acts of violence (despite what ‘media effects theory’ says), politicians’ words do not automatically create killers. Between rhetoric and deed, there is a human being with a brain who makes a particular decision. In the case of Loughner, however, it appears we have a mentally unstable individual who was probably incapable of comprehending a political message, never mind acting on it.

As Loughner’s story emerged over the weekend, it became clear to most liberal commentators that he was a lunatic, not a messenger sent from the Tea Party. Yet that did not stop them from finding the organisation at fault. The front page of today’s Times (London) has a photo of a peace activist in Tucson with a placard saying ‘Hate Speech = Murder’. Gary Younge in the UK Guardian articulated an argument that was rapidly spreading in liberal circles: ‘True, the rampage apparently emerged from his confused, unstable and troubled mind. But it was also the byproduct of a polarised political culture underpinned by increasingly vitriolic, violent and vituperative rhetoric and symbolism…. The connection between this rhetoric and Saturday’s events are not causal but contextual. The shooter was not likely to be acting under direct instructions but in an atmosphere that made such an attack more likely rather than less.’

We see this same formulation repeated over and over: ‘Yes, Loughner may be a deranged individual, but the Tea Party’s violent rhetoric is still to blame.’ Rather than prove causality or influence, this liberal argument posits that such evidence is not necessary, because the danger is inherent in the ‘context’ or the ‘atmosphere’ itself. This approach is even worse than traditional effects theory, which at least has attempted to demonstrate a connection, however dubious, between media and actions. Now, the liberal argument presents a nebulous concept of ‘atmosphere’ with no links between groups or individuals and the sentiments that are assumed to prevail in politics. From this perspective, words somehow create a febrile, unpredictable ambience out of which strange events might mysteriously emerge.

Before Saturday’s assassination attempt on Giffords, the predominant liberal view tagged Tea Party members as gun-toting racists or lunatics. Media reports of Tea Partiers carrying guns or a sole person shouting a racial epithet were claimed to represent the entire movement. In April, former president Bill Clinton indicated that he thought anti-government protesters like the Tea Party were potentially violent. He used the anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing to warn that Tea Party-style rhetoric could encourage a repeat.

Essentially, the liberal response to Loughner’s shooting spree was to force-fit it into this pre-existing narrative – even if the facts did not support it. That’s why Moulitsas could, without any evidence, quickly conclude ‘Mission Accomplished, Sarah Palin’.

Their calls to silence the Tea Party are anti-democratic. The use of inflammatory language – including military imagery – is not only a long-standing practice used by all parties, but a right that should be defended. The current discussion of the Tea Party erroneously conflates ‘extremism’, ‘anti-government sentiment’ and ‘political passion’ with mindless acts of violence. Unconfident of winning political debate and fearful of the distant masses, liberal elites are trying to use the Tucson shooting to defeat their opponents with smears rather than intellectual arguments. You don’t have to agree with the Tea Party (and I don’t) to see that it is important to oppose these false accusations of murder.

Sean Collins is a writer based in New York. Visit his blog, The American Situation, here.

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Topics USA


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