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.

It is hard to believe, given the circumstances, that there is no connection. True. But “hard to believe” is not our business. We report on what is in front of us, and our analysis should stem from that.

Dan Balz, at The Washington Post writes*:

Politicians in both parties have said this is not a time for one side to try to score political points against the other over who bears responsibility for these conditions, though there is plenty of finger-pointing in the blogosphere and on Twitter. The reality is everyone bears some responsibility, from politicians to political operatives to the media to ordinary Americans.

Right now, the conduct of politics and political campaigns too easily slides from lively debate to destructive competition in ways large and small. The Center for Political Participation at Allegheny College, together with Indiana University-Purdue University at Fort Wayne, has been looking at the question of civility in politics. A poll taken just before the November elections found that six in 10 people said politics had become less civil since Obama took office. That was an increase from the 48 percent who said so in April.

That may be one reason the words of Clarence Dupnik, the sheriff of Pima County, Ariz., have resonated so powerfully since Saturday’s shootings. Decrying the tone of much of today’s political debate, he said: “People tend to pooh-pooh this business about all the vitriol we hear inflaming the American public by people who make a living off of doing that. That may be free speech, but it’s not without consequences.”

George Packer, writing at his New Yorker blog Interesting Times drops the conceit that a discussion about rhetoric need be connected to Saturday’s shooting. (Our emphasis.)

This relentlessly hostile rhetoric has become standard issue on the right. (On the left it appears in anonymous comment threads, not congressional speeches and national T.V. programs.) And it has gone almost entirely uncriticized by Republican leaders. Partisan media encourages it, while the mainstream media finds it titillating and airs it, often without comment, so that the gradual effect is to desensitize even people to whom the rhetoric is repellent. We’ve all grown so used to it over the past couple of years that it took the shock of an assassination attempt to show us the ugliness to which our politics has sunk.

The massacre in Tucson is, in a sense, irrelevant to the important point. Whatever drove Jared Lee Loughner, America’s political frequencies are full of violent static.

Joel Meares is a former CJR assistant editor.