The shooting in Arizona is the sort of thing that obligates all sides in political debates to call a timeout. Right now our collective prayers are with Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and her family as she struggles for life, as well as with the families of those who were murdered in this senseless evil attack. But acting in the spirit of Rahm Emanuel’s belief that a crisis shouldn’t go to waste, some on the left are determined to exploit this tragedy to advance their own partisan interests.
One example is a post by the New Yorker’s George Packer, who writes today that “It doesn’t matter why he did it.” The “he” is the alleged Arizona murderer Jared Loughner, a mentally unstable creature who thinks that the government is imposing “mind control” on the public via “grammar.”
Packer concedes that Loughner is not an advocate of any coherent ideology or movement that has any real link to anything that is part of contemporary political debates, including the Tea Party activists. But to him that is irrelevant, because conservative activists and pundits have spent the last two years criticizing President Obama and his policies, making violence inevitable.
It is true that a few people on the margins have indulged in rhetoric that can be termed attempts at the “delegitimization” of Obama, including those who have irrationally focused on myths about the president’s birthplace and religion. But on the left it has become a piece of conventional wisdom that all conservatives are somehow guilty of rhetoric that crosses the bounds of decency. Indeed, so sensitive are Packer and those who think like him that even the public reading of the Constitution this past week by members of Congress (an exercise that included Rep. Giffords, who proudly read the First Amendment) is “an assault on the legitimacy of the Democratic Administration and Congress.”
Speaking in the same spirit, the National Jewish Democratic Council asserted: “It is fair to say — in today’s political climate, and given today’s political rhetoric — that many have contributed to the building levels of vitriol in our political discourse that have surely contributed to the atmosphere in which this event transpired.”
Both Packer’s post and the NJDC statement reflect the liberal talking point of the last two years that has sought to maintain the pretense that the Tea Party and other fervent critics of Obama were nothing more than hate-filled nut cases rather than merely citizens who were asserting their constitutional right of dissent. But as the election in November proved, the Tea Party turned out in many respects to be more representative of mainstream America than the media and other elites who branded them as extremists.
It is true that the political debate in this country over the last two years has been heated, with President Obama and congressional Democrats being subjected to some particularly tough rhetoric. But the level of nastiness directed at Obama was no greater than the vicious attacks that had been leveled at President Bush, who along with Dick Cheney and other administration figures was regularly vilified not only by demonstrators but also by mainstream liberal politicians. Indeed, Packer acts as though left-wing talk-show hosts like Keith Olbermann and Ed Schultz, who repeatedly seek to delegitimize Republicans and conservatives, didn’t exist. And it is not as if Republicans receive no threats; some, like Rep. Eric Cantor, the new House majority leader, have also been subjected to this sort of indecent behavior.
Despite all this, Packer and the NJDC are determined to use the tragedy in Arizona to resurrect this failed effort to besmirch conservatives and other Obama critics as violent haters. There is, after all, a precedent for this sort of thing. In 1995, President Clinton used the Oklahoma City bombing to strike back at his critics, including radio talk-show host Rush Limbaugh, even though Limbaugh and others critical of Clinton had nothing to do with the lunatics who perpetrated that crime.
Calls for civil debate are always appropriate, but those who wish to use this terrible crime to attempt to silence their opponents or to stifle legitimate public debate or activism are the ones who are crossing the bounds of decency today.