Ross Douthat argues that normally an attempted political assassination would have political benefits for the party of the target because of a “rally-round-the-flag” effect but that the left is squandering any of that potential good will with its reaction:
violence against elected officials tends to benefit whichever party seems to be targeted —except in cases where the attempts to immediately politicize the violence are this flagrant, this egregiously unfair, and this indifferent to the (still uncertain) facts of the case.
This is because the facts of the case of what just happened are actually irrelevant to the culpability of the right wing behavior we are denouncing. That behavior was irresponsible and condemnable independent of whether it ever causes the kind of violence inflicted last weekend. Our actions become no better or worse, in themselves and from a strictly moral perspective, based on what others do or do not do in response to them. If they show reckless judgment at the time and can be projected to have probable harmful consequences and yet we do them anyway, we are just as culpable if nothing bad actually occurs as if something bad does.
If what they did was harmless in itself, if they had only engaged in the sort of speech that cannot ever reasonably be construed to incite violence, then Douthat too should be indifferent to the facts of the case since no facts about a madman claiming inspiration from them should ever matter morally (even if they matter causally in some way).
But if what they did is bad enough that were a madman to claim them as inspiration we would think they really did deserve blame, if the facts could make this difference if they came out that way, then what they did is already condemnable, completely distinct from this event.
The only question is why use what looks like this horrifically and tragically ironic coincidental act of violence as the occasion to denounce the independently condemnable rhetoric of the right? Is that exploitative?
It is indeed unfair if people attribute direct (or it seems from the current facts, even indirect) causal responsibility for Saturday to Palin or the Tea Party or Republicans, etc. We should not be doing that.
But what is a reality is that the right has so primed and terrorized the left with explicit threats of violence in the last 2 and a half years that we have every right to angrily use this occasion to point to what the consequences of the violence publicly fantasized looks like and demand that in people’s minds this is what people think of when they hear right wing catch phrases which and threats which bandy about revolt like an exciting and empowering thing patriots do.
The relevance of this occasion is the opportunity is to say this is what revolt would look and feel like and promotion of it has no place in a democracy that has as much undeniable freedom of speech and access to political participation as our system does. Imperfect as our system and its functioning are, it is unconscionable to start talking about overthrowing it because you lose an election, as the Tea Party has obsessively done for a couple of years now.
This is an occasion to link the rhetoric to what the violence it celebrates looks like because all our words about these dangers have been ignored for two and a half years. And if in times like this, we can still not get the right wing pundits and politicians who have profited off dancing on the fine line between free speech and incitement to admit that there are limits to what rhetorical suggestions and tactics are befitting a civil democratic debate, then when can we ever hope for such concessions?
And that upside is that it shows that if you play with violent rhetoric, you run the risk of being associated with violence, even when you can plausibly or rightly deny it. What that means is that violent rhetoric becomes stigmatized. No one will want to get near it if they fear that engaging in it means that their name will be associated with every instance of violence going forward. The message that goes out is, if you do not want your name unjustly associated with the attempted murder of your enemies, do not use cavalier graphics which play with the idea of them in cross hairs and do not show indifference to their complaints about such tactics.
Remember, in the same month Giffords’s office had a brick go through the window by an avowed right winger, Palin felt no compunction about going forward with her “target” map and the message to “RELOAD”. She was undeterred from playing with the fire of that language even as Congresspeople were getting frightening threats on their lives. “Don’t Retreat, Reload!” was her mantra no matter what awful things some in her party were doing. Even when Dr. Laura mocked a black caller’s uncomfortability with the “n-word” by using it multiple times, Palin’s advice to Dr. Laura was to “reload”.
Sarah Palin’s only response to criticism is to reload and keep doing what you are doing. Never listen, never reflect, never stop. Always reload. It’s always a war and any concessions are retreat. That’s her resolutely immature and combative automatic response to everything.
She should be morally condemned and ostracized for that wholly unproductive political spirit when it is combined with her years of fetishization of violent imagery. She should not be condemned at all for last weekend specifically if, as it now appears, she is not even an indirect inspiration, let alone a direct one. But the coincidence of her then arrogant, remorseless disregard for Congresswoman’s safety or feelings of safety last spring and now the attack on the Congresswoman creates the stigma upon both her and all such recklessly indifferent speech. And that is at least a good outcome—even if it is in some ways unfair and regrettable for that.
If in the future no one wants to run the risk of even accidental and unfair associations with violent outbursts, they will censor themselves appropriately and engage only in civil, respectful discourse that, however passionate or jocular, stays far away from the line into violence. And that would be a far, far better political world to live in than the one in which we have in the last two years. It would be a world where no one for a second confuses the manifestos or massacres of paranoid madmen for normal political speech and fantasies.