Gabrielle Giffords wasn't even out of the operating room when the rush to judgment began. An unstable 22-year-old college dropout had pulled the trigger in a devastating attack that left six people dead and more than a dozen wounded outside a Tucson shopping plaza. But the real culprit wasn't Jared Loughner. It was Sarah Palin - along with the Tea Party, Fox TV and the whole gang of hate-spewing, right-wing fanatics bent on inciting the populace to violent insurrection.
The proof is right before our eyes. Ms. Palin's campaign slogan was "Don't retreat, reload!" Her website had a graphic showing crosshairs on congressional districts that had been targeted (get it?) for political defeat - including Ms. Giffords's congressional district. As one powerful Democratic senator opined, "These sorts of things, I think, invite the kind of toxic rhetoric that can lead unstable people to believe this is an acceptable response."
Over at MSNBC, Keith Olbermann blamed the right for launching a new age of domestic terrorism. So did Paul Krugman, The New York Times's in-house prophet of apocalyptic doom. "One of these days, someone was bound to take it to the next level," he wrote. "And now someone has." America's political discourse has become saturated with "eliminationist rhetoric" and, without some real soul searching, Saturday's shooting "will be just the beginning."
How ironic that the shooting of Ms. Giffords - a moderate Democrat who abhorred the politics of polarization - has ignited such hysteria. The paranoia in the air makes Rush Limbaugh seem rational. And the opportunism is revolting. One veteran Democratic operative says Barack Obama should follow the lead of Bill Clinton, who blamed the far right for Timothy McVeigh and the Oklahoma City bombing. "They need to deftly pin this on the Tea Partiers," he told Politico.com.
But blaming the Tea Party for the killing spree is about as useful as blaming the Beatles for the Manson Family's murder of Sharon Tate. (For those of you who need refreshing, Charles Manson drew his inspiration from the Beatles' Helter Skelter.) Everyone who met Mr. Loughner thought he was crazy as a bedbug. A former philosophy professor describes him as "someone whose brains were scrambled." One student wrote in an e-mail: "We have a mentally unstable person in the class that scares the living crap out of me. He is one of those whose picture you see on the news, after he has come into class with an automatic weapon."
Mr. Loughner's own writings are particularly incoherent. "I know who's listening: Government Officials, and the People," he wrote in one of his YouTube essays. "Nearly all the people, who don't know this accurate information of a new currency, aren't aware of mind control and brainwash methods. If I have my civil rights, then this message wouldn't have happen[ed]"
The blame-the-Tea Party crowd argues that the noxious political environment triggered murderous fantasies. But perhaps they've got the wrong enabler. The real problem is a gun-happy culture where someone can buy a Glock semi-automatic pistol as if it were a quart of milk. The Glock, as experts note, is good for only one thing - killing lots of stuff fast.
Besides, assassination attempts usually have more to do with the twisted minds of individuals than with the political climate of the day. When John Kennedy was killed in Dallas in 1963, local politics was poisonous with right-wing hatred. But Lee Harvey Oswald was a pro-Cuban Marxist. The man who shot Ronald Reagan was motivated by a desire to impress actress Jodie Foster. The man who shot George Wallace was simply trying to prove his manhood.
People who play politics with tragedy are on thin ice. If they want to accuse the other side of irresponsible hate-mongering, they should refrain from it themselves.