I've been trying to process the various responses to Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords' attack, and I feel very conflicted when listening to both sides.
On the left, people are saying that recent vicious political rhetoric is to blame for Jared Loughner's shooting rampage. Sarah Palin, in particular, has been on the defensive because of the map dotted with crosshairs she put out some time ago, urging Tea Partiers and Republicans to target 20 House Democrats who supported Obama's Health Care Plan. The argument seems to be that the right's use of violent words (such as "target") and images spurred Loughner to commit the crime, and if we are to avoid another tragedy like this one, we need to tone down the rhetoric.
The right is responding a number of ways. Some, such as Palin herself, are saying that Loughner was a madman and that Tea Partiers and Republicans should continue to speak out against policies they disagree with, using any metaphors they please. Others -- and I find this most interesting -- have decided to skirt the issue altogether and focus instead on making a devil of Loughner's attorney, Judy Clarke, the death penalty expert who represented Ted Kaczynski, Eric Rudolph, Zacarias Moussaoui, and Susan Smith.
To briefly address the approach of making Clarke somehow the real villain in this story: as my husband reminded me the other day, John Adams represented the British in the Boston Massacre and was humiliated for it, but he did it because the criminal justice system distinguishes the law-abiding society from the anarchic forces that seek to undermine it. The Right always trots out the founding fathers when it's convenient -- might as well be consistent with that strategy, eh?
As to the other (more viable) debate -- did madness pull the trigger, or did Sarah Palin? -- I don't believe the answer is clear one way or the other. I side with the right when I say that the spark of insanity had to be present in Loughner for him to believe that killing a 9-year-old girl (which he achieved) or a Congresswoman would change anything for the better. Without some chemical imbalance, or deranged upbringing, or both, he'd probably just be another "me," mumbling at the television or newspaper when I see the democratic system isn't working the way I'd hoped.
But I also have to admit, as a literature professor, that words do things. Speech act theory tells us that words such as "I now pronounce you man and wife," or "we. . .do. . .solemnly publish and declare, that these united colonies are, and of right ought to be free and independent states," change people's lives in tangible ways. Strong words can cause people to see the world differently, can call them to take action, either for the better or, in Loughner's case, for worse.
Perhaps words don't pull the trigger, but I believe they load the gun. In that sense, then, I also side with the left. We should be careful of the rhetoric we soak in and spit back out, and, most importantly, we should refuse to elect the people who seek to polarize us with hate speech. We should agree to continue to debate but should try to do so civilly and without embracing fallacies instead of facts. We can't prevent another shooting like the one in Arizona because we can never get rid of insanity, but we can decrease the likelihood by refusing to feed madness with vitriol.