Blood on all hands

It’s too soon to know what drove the Arizona gunman. That hasn’t stopped some from leaping to blame extreme political rhetoric on the right.  Is that fair? Do others also bear some responsibility?


We rush to judgment in America as swiftly as a sunny day at a supermarket can turn into a scene of chaos, carnage, heroism and grief.

Jared Lee Loughner, who opened fire on a crowd Saturday in Tucson, Ariz., killing at least six, wounding many more, is deranged.

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More coverage:

National Interest: Of course extreme right deserves some blame
Latest on the shooting from NPR


It will be a long while before we get any reliable sense of how the inchoate rage that coursed through his mind settled into a plan to assassinate a U.S. congresswoman.  We may never know.

That doesn’t daunt the political capitalizers and talk-show babblers from drawing rapid, cocksure conclusions about an event whose horror has not even fully seeped into our collective conscience.

Every such tragedy leads someone, whether on the partisan left or the partisan right, to crow those most-satisfied of phrases: “See, I told you so. I was right.”

Don’t get me wrong.   I think Sarah Palin, and the phalanx who follow along in her politics of envy, resentment, mockery and anger, will have much to answer for on Judgment Day.   She and they have cranked up the nastiness, and tamped down the intelligence, of our national discourse.

Racing to assume a link

It’s just that I have no clue yet whether her obnoxious rhetoric had anything at all to do with the toxins that flooded young Loughner’s brain.  There may be no connection, and even if one eventually proves out, it’s way too soon to assert one, or draw conclusions from it.  Of course, the shootings occurred on a Saturday, and there was a whole Sunday morning to be filled with talk-show blather, so connections were being made and denied at a furious pace.

From where I sit, movement conservatives – and now their suppposedly grass-roots successors in the tea party – deserve the biggest share of blame for the out-of-control, accusatory nastiness of our political discourse, where all who disagree must be demonized, damaged and reduced to caricature.

But for a pretty long time now, movement liberals have been dishing out some nastiness themselves. They fume at the wussy politeness of moderates, urging the left to engage in the same level of no-retreat-no-prisoners behavior as the right, just for different goals.

And, folks, lest liberals have convenient amnesia, it did get stupid ugly sometimes on the left during the anti-war heat of the Bush era.  The term “Nazi” was flung loosely and inanely at W. and Cheney long before most of us had ever heard of Glenn Beck.

That’s why I dug up the photo above, taken at an anti-war rally in Los Angeles in 2004.  Pretty bad, huh? 

I use that image as part of a powerpoint presentation I give sometimes, about how we all have some learning and contrition to do if we want a truly civil national conversation.

Idiocy begets idiocy

Point is, it’s pointless to tote up the sins of one side, no matter how grievous, while ignoring the sins of the other.  Politicis is Newtownian; for each action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.  Each time someone who claims to favor civility and abhor violence engages in the kind of brutal stupidity represented by that “bleeding Bush” poster, it gives license to the idiots on the other side of the divide to ratchet up their own poisonous nonsense.

Wishing Rush Limbaugh a heart attack is no better than wishing some liberal icon ill.

It’s worse in a way, when it comes from people who claim to know better.

So, while I certainly hope some razor-tongued activists on the right will spend a sleepless nights of guilty self-examination thinking about Tucson, I would not want any of us to feel exempt.

Each one of us has demonized disagreement, has treated someone who happens to vote the wrong way as less than fully human, fully deserving of dignity.   We all have, as Daniel Moynihan would put it, helped “define deviance down,” helped make toxic rhetoric seem normal.

All of us who believe that handguns are too easily available in this land, too easily sold to tormented, volatile souls like Loughner, also should examine our consciences.  Why are guns still so available, when the toll that this policy takes is so bloodily vivid?

Listen more, lobby less

It can only be because we do not work as hard to uphold our values as the other side does to promote its views. It can only be because we have not listened with enough respect, enough patience to the voices of those who own guns, but may not subscribe to the NRA’s line.  Our failure to hear them, to distinguish them from the hard-liners, to talk with them about the midway points where we might be able to meet and make some useful changes – well, that drives them into the NRA camp.

And that puts blood on our hands, too.  We simply have not done what apostles of less violence should do as a matter of course: Reach out in mildness and friendship, not insults and anger.

Please, please, for the memory of the dead, for the sake of the wounded survivors, and all of their families, let us not mindlessly exploit this anguish for pat partisan purpose.

Because our penchant for doing that is partly why these awful moments of sunshine shattered by gunfire keep happening.

And why, to America’s everlasting shame, they never lead to real change.

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