It's also simplistic to suggest that the right and the left have been equally irresponsible in their use of incendiary political language in recent years. It's been the right, not the left, that's framed the debate over the role of government in terms that recall armed revolution, that's stood behind a Republican U.S. Senate nominee who spoke of "Second Amendment remedies" to what she saw as congressional overreach and that has failed to repudiate signs and T-shirts at their rallies celebrating Thomas Jefferson's view that "the tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants."
--Tribune columnist Eric Zorn on who to blame for Arizona shooting.
My occasional friendly sparing partner, Tribune columnist Eric Zorn, reflects much of the orthodox media in suggesting that we all have to tone down our rhetoric, but (hint, hint) it's really the right wingers like Sarah Palin who are most at fault. Don't you know?
Logicians and social scientists would (or should) warn us about drawing such broad conclusions, using specific instances to generate sweeping generalizations. Especially when you are basing those conclusions on presumptions about a single person's motives--that none of us are in a position to understand with any degree of confidence.
This exercise reminds me of a magazine survey of psychiatrists who had concluded, without examining the "patient," that Barry Goldwater, the conservative Republican presidential candidate who opposed Lyndon B. Johnson, was psychologically disordered. Of the 2417 that were surveyed, 1189 said he was not psychologically fit to be president. Altogether, the psychiatrists responded with more than a quarter million words of analysis, without once talking to the patient.
If we're to blame right-wing rhetoric for the Arizona shooting, isn't it equally valid to blame the "culture of violence" prompted by Hollywood in movies and video games? If right-wing rhetoric is to blame, can't we also suggest that the Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski, was moved to his murderous actions by the "heated rhetoric" of hard-nosed environmentalists?
As with every tragic event and mystifying violence, ideologues--of both sides--will use it for political reasons, truly an insult to the victims.
But the violent perspective is hardly confined to hard line right-wingers. I can see this with some certitude for having been once a liberal commentator who turned right. Over my career, I've received it from both sides.
That might surprise for such as NBC's Andrea Mitchell for whom all roads of blame lead back to Sarah Palin. Even though it was BP that was in the sights of this left-wing hater (above). For the Mitchells of the world, here's a sampling of the left-wing tweets following the Arizona shooting urging the killing of Palin.
[Note: YouTube removed the content of this video that we here because it violates its service terms. That's no surprise because the vidoe was a compilation of scores of tweets that contained violent threats by liberals against conservatives.]
Eric asserts that such examples don't count because they "feature either kooks or hyperliteral interpretations of everyday allusions to vigorous political debate. And until lefties show up at rallies with signs saying they've left their guns at home '... this time' or spark a run on ammunition at the election of a right-wing president, I'll continue to see this as a false equivalence."
False equivalence is it? Those who have gone on the offensive against vigorous debate are liberals. Those who have exploited the tragic deaths for their political purposes are liberals. Mainstream liberals, I might add.
Maybe Eric should meditate on President Barack Obama's words Wednesday night in Tucson:
You see, when a tragedy like this strikes, it is part of our nature to demand explanations - to try to impose some order on the chaos, and make sense out of that which seems senseless. Already we've seen a national conversation commence, not only about the motivations behind these killings, but about everything from the merits of gun safety laws to the adequacy of our mental health systems. Much of this process, of debating what might be done to prevent such tragedies in the future, is an essential ingredient in our exercise of self-government.
But at a time when our discourse has become so sharply polarized - at a time when we are far too eager to lay the blame for all that ails the world at the feet of those who think differently than we do - it's important for us to pause for a moment and make sure that we are talking with each other in a way that heals, not a way that wounds.
Scripture tells us that there is evil in the world, and that terrible things happen for reasons that defy human understanding. In the words of Job, "when I looked for light, then came darkness." Bad things happen, and we must guard against simple explanations in the aftermath.
For the truth is that none of us can know exactly what triggered this vicious attack. None of us can know with any certainty what might have stopped those shots from being fired, or what thoughts lurked in the inner recesses of a violent man's mind.
So yes, we must examine all the facts behind this tragedy. We cannot and will not be passive in the face of such violence. We should be willing to challenge old assumptions in order to lessen the prospects of violence in the future.
But what we can't do is use this tragedy as one more occasion to turn on one another. As we discuss these issues, let each of us do so with a good dose of humility. Rather than pointing fingers or assigning blame, let us use this occasion to expand our moral imaginations, to listen to each other more carefully, to sharpen our instincts for empathy, and remind ourselves of all the ways our hopes and dreams are bound together.