We do not object to the condemnation of violence and violent rhetoric; such a sentiment feels absolutely appropriate. But the association between Saturday’s shooting and recent “violent political rhetoric”—which has in the last two years come to specifically mean the Tea Party, Sarah Palin, birthers, etc.—is so far unproven. At this time, there is no evidence that Loughner targeted Giffords for any clear or clearly understandable political reasons or that he was inspired by “vitriol” in political rhetoric. In its report addressing these very connections, the Times is quick to note that “the exact motivations of the suspect in the shootings remained unclear,” before exploring the issue of politically motivated violence.
The temptation to jump to the conclusion that Loughner is something of a result of the last two years of political tumult is strong. A number of factors feed the narrative:
- Sarah Palin’s map of targeted congressional races leading up the midterms included Giffords’s, with the controversial crosshairs graphic focused on the Congresswoman’s district because of her vote for health care reform. It will likely dint Palin’s reputation too, and add fuel to those looking to dump Saturday’s incident at her feet, that the graphic has been scrubbed from the site since the shooting.
- Giffords had already been the target of what appeared to be anti-health care right wing attacks. Her district office was vandalized last March, the glass front door shattered by attackers following an uptick in heated rhetoric directed at her and other members of Congress supporting reform. She discussed the attack and the nature of heated political rhetoric on MSNBC’s The Daily Rundown that month in a video the network played repeatedly Saturday, firming the associations between the incident and the shooting, despite anchors repeatedly noting they were not intending that connection. In a previous meet-and-greet event at another Arizona Safeway, Giffords’ staff called police after one attendee dropped a gun.
- Pima Country Sherriff Clarence W. Dupnik’s eloquent and powerful press conference on Saturday pushed the debate over political rhetoric directly to the fore in a way that was heralded by liberals and condemned by some conservatives as “reckless.” Dupnik argued that “vitriol” had contributed to the incident and made pointed remarks about the state of politics in Arizona. From the Washington Post’s report on the resonance of Dupnik’s remarks:
“There’s reason to believe that this individual may have a mental issue. And I think people who are unbalanced are especially susceptible to vitriol,” he said during his televised remarks. “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.”
“The anger the hatred the bigotry that goes on in this country is getting to be outrageous, and unfortunately I think Arizona has become sort of the capital,” he said. “We have become the Mecca for prejudice and bigotry.”
The politically charged comments rang familiar to those who had read Dupnik’s May op-ed in The Wall Street Journal in which he attacked Arizona’s controversial immigration laws.
- In a sound bite too hot to ignore, the New York Post reported Saturday that when asked if his daughter had any enemies, Congresswoman Giffords’s father Spencer Giffords responded, “Yeah The whole Tea Party.”
Loughner remains something of a mystery. His political motivations are unclear. His Youtube page is open to much interpretation, but one would be hard pressed to find a clear anti-health care, Tea Party-style protest in the incomprehensible text ramblings. Nearly every straight news report makes a point of noting that “There is no indication that the suspect, Jared Lee Loughner, identified with the tea party or was politically conservative.” The New York Times’s big Loughner report today leaves you with very little to go on other than this: “ there appear to be no explicit threats of violence that explain why, as police allege, Mr. Loughner, 22, would go to a Safeway supermarket north of Tucson on Saturday morning and begin shooting at a popular Democratic congresswoman and more than a dozen other people, killing 6 and wounding 19.”
And the story continues to unfold. As of Saturday night, police were looking for a second suspect—one whose identity might have shed some light on the motivations for Loughner’s alleged crime. Sunday morning, police appeared to have changed their minds about the second suspect.