On Sunday, political reporter/columnist Matt Bai wondered if we are at the start of a "terrifying new" moment in political violence in "A Turning Point in the Discourse, but in Which Direction?" Bai argued that the act of Republican politicians saying standard political things was somehow fueling the rhetorical flames.
He at least appeared evenhanded at the beginning.
Within minutes of the first reports Saturday that Representative Gabrielle Giffords, an Arizona Democrat, and a score of people with her had been shot in Tucson, pages began disappearing from the Web. One was Sarah Palin's infamous "cross hairs" map from last year, which showed a series of contested Congressional districts, including Ms. Giffords's, with gun targets trained on them. Another was from Daily Kos, the liberal blog, where one of the congresswoman's apparently liberal constituents declared her "dead to me" after Ms. Giffords voted against Nancy Pelosi in House leadership elections last week.
Odds are pretty good that neither of these - nor any other isolated bit of imagery - had much to do with the shooting in Tucson. But scrubbing them from the Internet couldn't erase all evidence of the rhetorical recklessness that permeates our political moment. The question is whether Saturday's shooting marks the logical end point of such a moment - or rather the beginning of a terrifying new one.
The problem here doesn't lie with the activists like most of those who populate the Tea Parties, ordinary citizens who are doing what citizens are supposed to do - engaging in a conversation about the direction of the country. Rather, the problem would seem to rest with the political leaders who pander to the margins of the margins, employing whatever words seem likely to win them contributions or TV time, with little regard for the consequences.
Consider the comments of Sharron Angle, the Tea Party favorite who unsuccessfully ran against Harry Reid for the Senate in Nevada last year. She talked about "domestic enemies" in the Congress and said, "I hope we're not getting to Second Amendment remedies." Then there's Rick Barber, a Republican who lost his primary in a Congressional race in Alabama, but not before airing an ad in which someone dressed as George Washington listened to an attack on the Obama agenda and gravely proclaimed, "Gather your armies."
Please. Barber's ad might have been corny, but it wasn't threatening. And if Bai is concerned about rhetoric from politicians, what would be make of this from Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri, who said last month that if Congress voted the wrong way on tax cuts, "that it really is time for people in America to take up pitchforks"?
In fact, much of the message among Republicans last year, as they sought to exploit the Tea Party phenomenon, centered - like the Tea Party moniker itself - on this imagery of armed revolution. Popular spokespeople like Ms. Palin routinely drop words like "tyranny" and "socialism" when describing the president and his allies, as if blind to the idea that Americans legitimately faced with either enemy would almost certainly take up arms.
Is "socialism" another word conservatives aren't allowed to use? Newsweek declared "We're All Socialists Now" in a February 2009 cover story. I don't recall the uprising.
Bai went on to cite standard political discourse as fueling the fires:
On Saturday, for instance, Michael Steele, the Republican Party chairman, was among the first to issue a statement saying he was "shocked and horrified" by the Arizona shooting, and no doubt he was. But it was Mr. Steele who, last March, said he hoped to send Speaker Nancy Pelosi to the "firing line."
Mr. Steele didn't mean this the way it sounded, of course; he was talking about "firing" in the pink slip sense of the word. But his carelessly constructed, made-for-television rhetoric reinforced the dominant imagery of the moment - a portrayal of 21st-century Washington as being like 18th-century Lexington and Concord, an occupied country on the verge of armed rebellion.
Bai eventually hinted that yes, President Bush was vilified by the left as well (though the Times never devoted reams of coverage to the prospect of violence as a result).
None of this began last year, or even with Mr. Obama or with the Tea Party; there were constant intimations during George W. Bush's presidency that he was a modern Hitler or the devious designer of an attack on the World Trade Center, a man whose very existence threatened the most cherished American ideals.