In the wake of the terrible shootings in Tucson on Saturday, a debate has sprung up. Does this horrific act of violence have anything to do with the recent U.S. political climate, its political rhetoric and the pronouncements of various political figures and parties? Or is this an isolated act, the act of a deranged individual, whose motives are unknown, possibly unfathomable?
The obvious and correct response to this false either/or construct is that both arguments can and may be true. And yet at the memorial of flowers, candles and signs outside Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords' office, some have brought signs laying blame at the feet of the Tea Party or Republicans, which others have removed. Politics should not be brought into this, say the sign removers.
And, on Sunday (Jan. 9), Republican leaders Jon Kyl, U.S. senator from Arizona, and Lamar Alexander, senator of Tennessee, denied any connection between the shooting and politics. On "Face the Nation," Kyl with amazing smugness said of the accused man, Jared Lee Lougher, "It's probably giving him too much credit to ascribe a coherent political philosophy to him. We just have to acknowledge that there are some mentally unstable people in this country. Who knows what motivates them to do what they do?"
So saying did Kyl wash his profession's and his party's hands of any responsibility, even any apparent discomfort.
This effort to insulate politics and particular political figures from what happened in Tucson on Saturday (Jan. 8), and thus to avoid any responsibility, is really shameful.
This was, after all, an elected Congress member, holding a public and publicized event in her capacity as an elected official. It was political. It was an assassination attempt, at which six people where killed and nine others, in addition to Giffords, wounded.
Did Sarah Palin or the Tea Party buy the shells or pull the trigger? Of course not. They are not legally responsible. But they are morally implicated. As is well known, Palin had Congresswoman Giffords on her map of "targets." She was "in the crosshairs." Palin's "Don't retreat, reload," slogan speaks volumes, as does the campaign rhetoric of Gifford's Tea Party-sponsored Republican opponent, Jesse Kelly. Dressed in combat gear, Kelly during the campaign urged, "Get on target to victory in November, help remove Gabrielle Giffords from office. Shoot a fully automatic M16 with Jesse Kelly."
Instead of hastily pulling the map of "targeted" and "in the crosshairs" political opponents down from her website and issuing a statement saying she was praying for the victims, Sarah Palin would have done well to express regret. Regret for whatever part her rhetoric and images may have done to contribute to Loughner's appalling act.
Tea Party officials, instead of hurrying to distance themselves from what happened to Giffords, who they had termed a "traitor" (a capital offense) for voting for health care reform, ought to have had the decency to wonder aloud about the wisdom of their words and their recourse to violent metaphors.
Advocates for Palin, the Tea Party, and their fellow travelers are saying how important it is that free speech be preserved. Amen. Absolutely.
But while speech may be free, it isn't cheap. It has consequences. It has costs.
Responsible people think about the consequences before they speak. And responsible people take responsibility for their ill-advised words and actions even if they are not legally responsible.