An insane young man goes on a shooting rampage. With his legally purchased semiautomatic, he fires a bullet point-blank into the head of a popular young Democratic congresswoman—the wife of an astronaut—and then fires into the crowd surrounding her. His victims include a federal judge and a 9-year-old girl, born on 9/11, who had just been elected to her school's student council. Thanks in part to the quick thinking of a 20-year-old gay Hispanic intern, the congresswoman survives the assassination attempt. The nation's first black president leads the nation in a moment of silence.
No author could get away with putting that sequence of events into a novel or movie; the symbolism is too heavy-handed, the drama too hackneyed. It's too unrealistic for anything but real life. But it really happened: On Saturday, Jared Lee Loughner allegedly shot Arizona congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and 19 others, fatally wounding six, including federal judge John McCarthy Roll and 9-year-old Christina Taylor Green.
Also unrealistic: the reactions to the shooting. In an editorial published at 4:00 a.m. on Monday morning, conservative magazine National Review quickly moved to apoliticize the shooter: "Jared Loughner is clearly deranged, his fevered mind drawn to irrational extremes, whether those of Adolf Hitler or Karl Marx." Not our fault, they're saying, and how dare you even try to make it political by implying it was political? By Tuesday morning, "thoughtful" right-wing hack David Brooks was saying in the New York Times that "the evidence before us suggests that Loughner was locked in a world far removed from politics as we normally understand it" and that charges that Loughner's actions were political "were made despite the fact that the link between political rhetoric and actual violence is extremely murky."
But an attempted assassination of a member of the United States House of Representatives is by definition a political act. Though the murder of Judge Roll appears to have been a terrible misfortune—he just happened to be in the shopping center parking lot and wandered over to say hello—the assault on Giffords was premeditated.
Loughner kept a three-year-old form letter from Giffords in a locked safe in his room; he had complained to friends that she didn't live up to his expectations; he didn't find her smart or authentic enough, and she was presumably not willing to listen to his incoherent ideas about currency and mind control. In that safe, he also had documents referring to "my assassination," along with the phrase "I planned ahead" scrawled on an envelope. On some level, Loughner knew the attack was a political choice, even if his twisted ideas didn't align with any reasonable person's idea of a consistent ideology.
Do you know what else is a political act? Sarah Palin publishing a map with Democratic congressional districts in crosshairs. Palin ordering her followers "Don't Retreat, Instead - RELOAD!" on Twitter in March of 2010. Giffords's opponent in the 2010 election, Jesse Kelly, publishing an ad promoting an M16 shooting party at a firing range to "Get on Target for Victory" in order to "remove Gabrielle Giffords from office." One man was arrested after he dropped a gun on the ground at a Giffords rally in 2009; another coward smashed her Tucson office's window on March 21, 2010—the night the health care reform bill was passed.
More political acts: thousands of teabagger signs at rallies across the country in the last two years promoting armed insurrection against Democrats who dared to pass legislation—health care reform—that they had campaigned and won on.
When writing political copy or giving a political speech—or tweeting a political tweet—you are speaking not just to "real Americans" but to crazy Americans. Any elected official who has ever sat through a town hall meeting knows this. Crazy people gravitate toward politics. Politics is the discourse of the people, and it's the one public sphere where all have to be heard, even the nuts. Attend any town hall meeting or call for public comment on even the most mundane public policy issues—a new park, an addition to a children's hospital—and you will see at least one clearly crazy person step up to the microphone to say crazy shit (the barbecues at the new park give off carcinogens that will render the whole neighborhood barren, say, or the children's hospital is funded by the Freemasons). The elected official politely thanks the crazy person for his question and changes the subject. Even brand-new elected officials understand this: Don't confront the crazy. Don't affirm or deny anything they say. Don't feed the crazy. And most importantly, don't be crazy yourself.
And here's why: because when politics goes crazy—when politicians go crazy—the crazies go crazier.
Palin's advisers tried to claim this week that those were "surveyor marks" on her now-infamous map, not crosshairs. But no matter how many aides Palin fires, no matter how furiously she backpedals, this shooting is her legacy. Sarah Palin did not put a gun into Jared Lee Loughner's hands—though Republicans did make sure he could legally purchase a semiautomatic handgun, another political act—but Sarah Palin and her cronies have spent the past two years cranking crazies like Loughner up.
Palin is the monstrous love child of Lee Atwater and Karl Rove, and she long ago crossed the line between hateful rhetoric and incitement to violence. Palin was warned again and again that her violent imagery was getting dangerous, that she was stoking the flames of the fringes with language that insinuated a coup d'état was necessary. Pundits, politicians, and even the intended target of this weekend's attack all tried to warn her. When Palin's crosshairs map debuted in March of 2010, Giffords told MSNBC, "The way that [Palin] has it depicted has the crosshairs of a gun sight over our district. When people do that, they've got to realize there are consequences to that action."
When faced with the criticisms of Giffords and many others—way too many to list here—Palin rolled her eyes, shrugged it off, and ratcheted up her violent rhetoric.
If Republicans want to recover from this catastrophe, if they want to make amends for this tragedy, it's going to take more than blame-shifting, responsibility-dodging opinion pieces. They have to do more than merely disassociate themselves from Palin and the violent language Palin has employed to "excite the base"—and crank up the crazies—for the last two years. They have to make Palin a pariah.
The general public is already disassociating from Palin: The day of the shooting, her 2012 stock at Intrade collapsed, predicting an even larger decline in Palin's already-weak showing with moderates and independents. Palin's stock will fall farther should she decide to run for president. Candidate Palin will have to come out of hiding—where the hell is she?—and she will be forced to answer for Loughner outside of the Fox News bubble.
Last weekend was spectacularly bad for Sarah Palin, but it was good for Mitt Romney. (Was that a dig against Palin in Romney's one statement on the incident? It read, "Today's horrifying shooting in Tucson shocks the conscience of decent Americans everywhere." Any mention of "decent Americans" in the wake of the shooting feels directed at Palin.) The Mormon from Massachusetts is practically the only seeming moderate in the Republican Party, and his 2012 campaign, which has been endorsed by party elders like George H. W. Bush, will surely receive a bump when the last few "decent Americans" who support Palin slink away.
While Romney is just as guilty as every other Republican of engaging in the idolatry of Reagan-worship, he's the only one in the current crop who has a chance to woo moderates with his small-government shtick. He's Senator John Kerry to Sarah Palin's Governor Howard Dean—he's "electable," she's "hotheaded." Nobody on earth has ever felt strongly about anything Mitt Romney has ever said, and that might be his greatest strength going into the Republican presidential race after last weekend.
But just because Sarah Palin should go away, that doesn't mean she will go away. And begging for civility out of teabaggers is like trying to convince a treeful of chimpanzees to stop masturbating. In many ways, it's up to the media to stop swooning over everything the extreme right wing says or does—we have to stop helping the people who are cranking up the crazy—which, ultimately, means it's up to all of us to stop needlessly amplifying their hateful, violent rhetoric.
The bloodbath in Tucson opened the 2012 presidential campaign. If we don't find a way to elevate the discourse, it's all downhill from here.