Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords remains in critical condition. Her alleged shooter, Jared Lee Loughner, is not cooperating with police. The motives for Saturday’s attempted assassination are still murky at best; at worst, potentially unfathomable. And yet the analysis machine is in overdrive.
At heart, rhetoric was to blame, say most—though even they concede there’s yet no connection between Loughner and any mainstream political movement or its brand of political speech. But with the narrative having been settled by nightfall Saturday—we are going to have a national debate on the nature of our political discussion in this country—there has been a messy scramble among the partisan press to stake out a position and lay and deflect blame; to position themselves on the proper side of the discourse. Look at Sarah Palin’s crosshair graphic, cried the left. What about the Daily Kos’s “Giffords is ‘Dead to Me’” story, cried the right. And that one-liner in the Times about Loughner being liberal? A particularly egregious column appeared in Sunday’s New York Daily News, where Michael Daly argued, without mentioning Loughner’s name or his ambiguous political beliefs, that Palin had Giffords’ blood on her hands. [Update: Daly contacted me and pointed out that while his column’s headline read, “Rep. Gabrielle Giffords’ blood is on Sarah Palin’s hands…,” the column itself said she “may.”]
As we reported yesterday, this is all a bit like trying to drive a half-built car. The facts are still being dug up, and few have settled. Any argument driven on such faint fumes is sure to crash, or at least swerve, as we learn more. Most of the mounting profiles of Loughner, in which reporters are playing psychologist and former classmates are taking the lead, suggest little beside a disturbed young man who “creeped” out classmates and spat out incoherent, inconsistent quasi-political sound bites every once in a while. Mark Potok’s analysis at the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Hatewatch site is strong—he cites conspiracy theorist David Wynn Miller as a likely source of some of the ideas expressed in Loughner’s more incomprehensible YouTube videos—but even he can only “think” that rhetoric and ideology outside of the mainstream “probably” had some influence on Loughner, who was mentally unstable.
The point is that we don’t know enough.
Still, there is an almost infuriating insistence among the political press and others to analyze this story through the prism of political rhetoric, long before the facts have been born out fully enough to render that the appropriate approach. It may well be—and an approach worth taking regardless of Loughner’s motivations—but as we wrote yesterday, we need to take time to learn what happened before discerning what it means.
USA Today’s Susan Page and Fredreka Schouten have a report today titled, “Gabrielle Giffords shooting fuels debate over rhetoric,” in which they diligently run through the settled-upon issues: the Palin crossairs, the “climate,” the historical similarities with Okalahoma City and 9/11, the idea of Arizona as a kind of microcosm for the most heated national political debates. The Times ran a similar piece yesterday, titled “Bloodshed Puts New Focus on Vitriol in Politics.” Over the pond, the Telegraph runs a story headlined, “Gabrielle Giffords shooting: inflammatory rhetoric draws real blood.”
Thought-leaders across the media spectrum—those above the partisan fray, those who steer our conversation—have been heavily promoting this particular narrative line. In a Times analysis published yesterday, Matt Bai examined the kind of rhetoric many are pinning as connected, somehow, to Saturday’s shooting.
In fact, much of the message among Republicans last year, as they sought to exploit the Tea Party phenomenon, centered — like the Tea Party moniker itself — on this imagery of armed revolution. Popular spokespeople like Ms. Palin routinely drop words like “tyranny” and “socialism” when describing the president and his allies, as if blind to the idea that Americans legitimately faced with either enemy would almost certainly take up arms.
Mr. Steele didn’t mean this the way it sounded [a comment on putting Nancy Pelosi in the “firing line”], of course; he was talking about “firing” in the pink slip sense of the word. But his carelessly constructed, made-for-television rhetoric reinforced the dominant imagery of the moment — a portrayal of 21st-century Washington as being like 18th-century Lexington and Concord, an occupied country on the verge of armed rebellion.
And yet Bai preceded this discussion by essentially acknowledging the lack of a proven connection between such rhetoric and the weekend’s attempted assassination.
It wasn’t clear Saturday whether the alleged shooter in Tucson was motivated by any real political philosophy or by voices in his head, or perhaps by both. But it’s hard not to think he was at least partly influenced by a debate that often seems to conflate philosophical disagreement with some kind of political Armageddon.