It’s like clockwork. Every time some tragedy occurs, the finger-pointing begins. But this time, there’s a chance for real change, and we should take it, and avoid distractions along the way.
Following Saturday’s shooting in Arizona, the debate has settled (as it should) not on assigning blame for the actual shooting, but on the political climate that makes this tragedy not an unexpected disaster, but something for which many of us have been, well, holding our breath.
The blame for that climate unequivocally lies on one side of the political spectrum. The right. Not all of you guys. No, certainly not, and I mean that earnestly. But visible elements of the conservative movement have cultivated, and shown no real interest in restraining or atoning for, a very real and growing extremist movement, one that’s in constant danger of co-opting, or at least subsuming, the mainstream conservative message. Yesterday, we noted a few of the more egregious examples (e.g., Bachmann’s “Second Amendment remedies”), but Glenn Beck’s conversation with Sarah Palin, described yesterday, makes the point:
Sarah, as you know, peace is always the answer. I know you are feeling the same heat, if not much more on this. I want you to know you have my support. But please look into protection for your family. An attempt on you could bring the republic down.
This dramatizing of politics, suffusing each moment with some millennial importance, matched with concomitant warnings of and exhortations to violence, is dangerous. At the least, it is irresponsible. And now is precisely the time to say so.
There’s no real answer to this account. At least, in its frenzied, over-reactive defense, the right has made none, choosing to deflect blame by making a story out of whatever tacky thing Markos Moulitsas says, and assembling every out of line tweet, blog post, and campaign sign by every Democratic-leaning operative since 2000 (this task, as always, dutifully discharged by Michelle Malkin [no link]) to give the illusion that incivility is equally balanced.
But none of this meets our central thesis. Neither a Code Pink protester (nor your run-of-the-mill tea partier, for that matter) is the equivalent of a sitting congresswoman, a former vice presidential candidate, and the first-through-third most listened to talk radio hosts in the nation. Grassroots extremism is one thing, and no-one can be called to task for it. Coordinated top-down demagoguery, built to derail the national discourse and supplant it with conspiracy theories, distortions, hysteria, and threats, is quite another. Who can look at a “BUSH = HITLER” sign, then at Sarah Palin claiming Barack Obama will kill her baby, and expect them to have equal effects on public discourse? This is a farce.
We need to have a serious discussion about political morality in this country. If this tragedy provides the opening, then at least something good will have come from it. But by actively hindering a necessary, cathartic discourse, Republicans and conservatives alike will do nothing but ensure that the next time tragedy strikes, they may not be as easily able to avoid direct blame. At the least, they’ll forfeit whatever seriousness and moral authority the movement ever had.