Conservatives and tea party activists have reacted with rage to what they view as accusations from the left that they are somehow responsible for this weekend’s massacre in Arizona that targeted Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ). In reality, progressives are not trying to assign blame or argue that shooter Jared Lee Loughner — who seems to possess no coherent political ideology at all — is a member of any popular political movment, but rather to point out that words have consequences. Political and pundit leaders need to be aware that their words will reach the “serious and delirious alike” and that their rhetoric should not serve to inflame ignorance.
Conservatives like Fox News contributor Michelle Malkin have tried to muddy the waters by claiming that the left has employed violent rhetoric as well. While this may be true for rank-and-file activists on both sides, there is no question something much more disturbing has happened on the right over the past two years, with conservative leaders — including sitting lawmakers and leading political candidates — employing violent rhetoric to an alarming degree. While there is no evidence to suggest that this conservative rhetoric directly influenced Loughner, the incident should nonetheless serve as moment for all leaders to be mindful of the potential consequences of their words.
Some conservatives understand this. An unnamed “senior Republican senator” told Politico yesterday that “there is a need for some reflection here — what is too far now?” And on MSNBC this morning, former GOP congressman Joe Scarbrough and conservative stalwart Pat Buchanan agreed that right-wing firebrands like former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN) should “apologize” for their violent rhetoric — not to assume any culpability for the tragedy, but to simply acknowledge that “they’ve been irresponsible in their rhetoric”:
SCARBOROUGH: So Pat, is this not a time for people, like Sarah Palin, who have used violent imagery – she just has. I know some of my conservative friends and family members won’t like that reality. Or, Michele Bachmann, who said she wants Minnesotans armed and dangerous. Isn’t this an opportune time for them to apologize -– not saying that it led to anything — but just saying that they’ve been irresponsible in their rhetoric and they’re going to be more careful moving forward? […]
I am just saying though, I mean, God, you’ve worked for two presidents. Would you not be in there if you were working for Sarah Palin right now, saying, go out and say it had nothing to do with this shooting, but you understand that it was irresponsible, and you’re going to be more careful moving forward. Wouldn’t you give her that advice if you were her aide?
PAT: Well, I certainly would. I would give everybody the advice to tone down the rhetoric and get away from military and the armed metaphors and things that a lot of us have used in campaigns, especially at a time like this. You know, I sure would Joe.
Still, there is danger of overcorrecting. Rep. Robert Brady (D-PA) has said he will introduce a bill that would make it a federal crime to use rhetoric or symbols — such as Palin’s infamous gun sights — that could be perceived as a threat to a member of Congress. While Brady’s intentions are laudable, as legal blogger Jonathan Turley notes, Brady’s legislation is “short-sighted” and would likely infringe on First Amendment rights. Brady’s efforts might be better directed as a Congressional resolution expressing strong disapproval of violent political speech and symbols, but stopping short of criminalizing such speech. (HT: GOP 12).