Two responses to the shooting in Arizona over the weekend. First, prayers for Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, the other people who were wounded, and the doctors working to keep them alive; for the families of those who were killed; and, yes, for the clearly very tortured soul of the accused killer, 22-year-old Jared Loughner.
Which leads me to the second point.
The rush from some precincts to blame the shooting on the tea party or Sarah Palin was disgusting. Everyone who self-righteously did so in the name of civility in politics needs to understand that their blood libels make them part of the problem.
And, yes, it is blood libels — plural — at this point. Before this killing, it was the Times Square bomber last spring; before that, it was the aviator who crashed a small plane into an IRS building in Austin, Texas, last winter; before that, the shooting at the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., in the summer of 2009. In each instance, the specter of tea-party radicalism, or at least its supposedly inciting rhetoric, was raised — only for it to become clear once the facts emerge that we were talking about either a lone-actor head case or, in the Times Square bombing, an Islamic terrorist (more on that in a moment).
The next time a person connected to the tea party commits a politically motivated murder will be the first time. Yet, the movement has been branded as violent without basis, simply because some people wish for it to be so.
As a journalist, I understand the impulse of my brethren working on a story such as this to begin looking for clues as to why it happened. A Democratic congresswoman is shot at a public event she’s holding, and it’s only natural to look for clues that it may have been a politically motivated killing; I get that. But there was a time, if only in the theoretical news operation of journalism-school construct, when the media didn’t speculate upon such theories publicly, either directly or through the quoting of other people who were merely speculating, until they’d found some sort of actual evidence.
And, getting back to the Times Square bombing, such a time still exists when Islamic terrorism may have been to blame. In those instances, we are told not to jump to conclusions, not to tar an entire belief system by the actions of one person or a handful of persons. Now, to be perfectly clear, I think it is appropriate for the media (and politicians) not to speculate that a killer or attempted killer may have been linked to Islamic terrorism until they find some evidence pointing to that motivation. The question is why we don’t see such forbearance — back in that j-school classroom, the professor called it “media ethics” — when the belief system that might be tarred is a group of our fellow Americans who just happen to have a different political orientation than most of the media.
There’s also the double standard that when Palin puts candidate in her political cross-hairs, she’s said to be inciting violence. But when Democrats do the same thing, everyone understands it for what it is: an analogy to war in a society where such metaphors litter our discussion of politics, sports and most anything else that’s competitive.
Do we need more civility in our political discourse? Yes, and I’ve mentioned that need a few times before on this blog. But not because it will prevent mass shootings by sick individuals. Just read the words at the end of this Associated Press story:
One of the high school friends who spoke on condition of anonymity paused when asked if he considered Loughner a Republican or Democrat.
“Is there a radical party? It went beyond that, it wasn’t left or right,” the friend said.