There's been a lot of (understandable) wringing of hands and (less understandable but predictable) pointing of fingers after the shooting in Arizona that killed six people and wounded thirteen--including Representative Gabrielle Giffords (D) who was apparently the target. There's been lots of worry over the rhetorical climate of US politics these days. Rightfully so. And the debate almost immediately began as to whether the vitriol (nurture) or Loughner's own psychoses (nature) caused him to act as he did. Of course, little attention was given to the notion that it was a combination of the two because that's not sexy enough for news. The debate was framed along the nurture versus nature divide because that is an unanswerable question, and unanswerable questions allow networks to keep asking them, keep bringing "experts" on shows, and keep making hay out of the same thing over and over again.
Despite what I think about the way the debate's been framed, some of the evidence for shooting-as-a-result-of-nurture is painfully weak and a little offensive to thinking people everywhere. The image at the top of this post, which is still on SarahPAC's Facebook page, targets twenty congressional districts at play in the November 2010 elections. The problem, so the conventional wisdom spun out in a mere four days goes, is that images like this are what prompted Loughner to go on his rampage. Using gun imagery (a scope's crosshairs in this case) is an implicit incitement to violence.
Or so the argument runs. But there are some things that just don't wash. Was Jared Lougner, the alleged shooter, affected by the vitriol on the airwaves and television and internet? Undoubtedly. But does it follow that someone with whom we disagree and whom we believe to be a moron is somehow at fault? Certainly not. The Momma Grizzly herself (Wait, don't they hunt bears in Alaska? Ah, yes. They do.) is not to blame for Loughner's actions. Steve Almond has written a very sharp, very thoughtful piece on the Kabuki theater that is our response to these acts of violence; he also makes a very good point about the archetype of the Lone Gunman (or its cousin in this case, the Lone Nut).
As an aside: I want to be clear that I think Loughner's mental problems are the major motivator for his actions, but I also want to be clear that I think the political climate was probably what made Loughner choose the victims he did. This was an angry man, and he was eventually going to lash out at someone--maybe the instructors at the community college, the recruiters at the Army, his local postman, who knows. He was going to hurt someone, but it's become a media wet dream because he killed a judge and severely wounded a US Representative.
But back to the Lone Nut and blame. Almond's point that our culture has now militarized and moralized political conversation to the point that being wrong is not an option is a valid one. He quotes Sarah Palin's now infamous words to talk show host Dr. Laura Schelssinger:
That is much more indicative of the self-righteousness that we're seeing in US politics and daily life these days. I still don't see it as inciting violence the way Gifford's Republican opponent, Jesse Kelly, did during the campaign.
At least in the two instances I've cited of Sarah Palin's rhetoric, she's dipping into the vernacular of her base. The people who follow her and love her are, by and large, members of a gun culture. And most people who hunt, in my experience, have a healthy respect for the potential danger of firearms. (Also, most of the people I know who own a gun are mostly sane.) I do not think we can or should fault her for speaking to her base (these people buy her books and pay her exorbitant sums of money to speak, after all.)
All that to say that the vitriol probably focused Loughner's anger onto public officials, so Almond's point that
Men are paid millions of dollars to appear on radio and television and play act how one might murder a member of congress, or burn a person alive. They joke about hanging elected officials in effigy, or driving stakes through the heart of the President. A presidential candidate jokes about rape. Another declares that members of congress should be tarred and feathered.
is a valid one. We have all gone too far. And while it may be unpalatable to jump on the Lone Nut bandwagon to explain away this ugly episode in US politics, it's just as unpalatable to blame Palin's indirect allusions to firearms for this man's actions. If Loughner can look at the targets on that map and make the leap to shooting an elected member of Congress for voting for a healthcare bill, then no political rhetoric that mentions resistance or conflict is safe. If we lower the bar so far as to condemn Palin's rhetoric, we've condemned almost all political rhetoric.
Now can the media return to some sanity so I can stop defending Palin and go back to loathing her? Please?