Nobody should realistically blame Sarah Palin for directly causing the incident. Sarah Palin did not pull the trigger; Sarah Palin did not tell the nutbag to pull the trigger; Sarah Palin did not buy the gun.
However, there’s a difference between cause and context, and that’s what those of us trying to talk about Palin’s comments want to discuss. Saying “he was just a nutbag” isn’t sufficient. There are lots of nutbags who do violent things, but Jared Loughner didn’t decide to kill people because he was in a crazy cult (like Squeaky Fromme was) or because he was obsessed with a Hollywood star (like John Hinckley was). Jared Loughner, like most of the major violent newsmaking incidents of the past few years, decided to go kill people because he felt, like most paranoids do (and he’s pretty obviously paranoid) that Somebody Was Out To Get Him.
But most paranoids don’t go out killing people; the tinfoil hats and hoarding is usually enough to get them by. So what happened with Jared Loughner? The same thing that happened with Andrew Stack when he flew his plane into an IRS building, or Byron Williams when he decided he had to go shoot up the Tides Federation and the ACLU, or James von Brunn when he shot up the Holocaust Museum, or Jim Adkisson when he decided to shoot up a Unitarian Church, or Richard Poplawski when he shot up a bunch of cops, or Nidal Hasan when he shot up Fort Hood.
I threw that last one in there in purpose, because back when Nidal Hasan – somebody who was obviously mentally disturbed – committed his crime, there were no shortage of people who were willing to say that radical Islam influenced his actions even if he was a nutbag. Now, this is not to say that Sarah Palin is equivalent to Osama Bin Laden; of course she isn’t. Bin Laden is a terrorist; Palin is just a generally terrible human being.
But she, and more importantly the modern conservative movement, uses the violent rhetoric of uprise and uses it routinely. This cannot be denied because it is plainly obvious on its face. “Don’t retreat, reload” did not become her catchphrase for nothing. Sharron Angle talking about how if conservatives lose at the polls they should consider resorting to “Second Amendment remedies.” Carrying signs that say things like “we came unarmed – this time,” or alternately just bringing a gun right to a political event period1. Glenn Beck talking for hours at a time about how the government is being put to evil, tyrannical ends, and how it’s important for Americans to “rise up” or “not take it any more” or “[insert intentionally nonspecific assertion of brave action here]”.
This is not to say that Jared Loughner is conservative; most likely he is just too crazy and fringe to really be anything, much like Stack or or even Williams.2 But he, like the others, was receiving a steady diet of rhetoric that was violent, at times even slightly eliminationist.
As for Poplawski and van Brunn, they were white supremacists, which – historical connotations aside – doesn’t really have that much to do with modern conservatism, ideologically speaking.3 But over the last few years, movement conservatism has been visibly borrowing rhetoric from the paranoid camp of white supremacism. Not racist stuff, let’s be clear; paranoid stuff.
Government as inherent tyranny; liberal institutions as ground for secret conspiracies; the almost certainly incipient charge of the black helicopters. And, of course, the desperate labeling of a health care bill so blandly middle-of-the-road and centrist it was probably drafted with mayonnaise rather than ink as “a government takeover of healthcare” and “death panels” and etc. etc. etc. If you’re a paranoid, you already think that THEY are out to GET YOU. If you’re told, over and over again, that THEY is “this specific bunch of people,” sometimes it starts to sink in. That paranoid rhetoric has been chanted, like a mantra, by the modern conservative movement. It’s not the cause for Jared Loughner’s actions; it’s the context.
I get that conservatives don’t want to talk about context right now. After all, it’s rather uncomfortable when this sort of thing is so obvious on its face – just as it was obvious that when Nidal Hasan shot up Fort Hood that, although he was a nutbag and that was most of the reason he went on a rampage, being exposed to the worst kind of violent Islamic rhetoric didn’t help.
And Palin knows it, which is the sad thing: she knows exactly what she did and why. I mean for crissake Sarah Palin’s staff is reduced to pretending that the gun sights on that map were surveyor’s symbols, that’s how desperate they are to try and find any excuse at all for their tone now that it’s possibly gone south on them and people are saying “hey, maybe this isn’t appropriate,” and incidentally when Team Palin says things like that I don’t know why their supporters don’t realize that they’re really saying “you are idiots for giving us money and moral support, you really are, that’s what we think of you,” but that is neither here nor there.
But context matters. Why things like this happened, and have happened before, and will continue to happen in the future – these things matter, because now there is a respected federal judge and a man who shoved his wife down and took her bullet and a nine-year-old girl who are dead. Dismissing this as the act of one nutbag, as random chance, equivalent to a strike of lightning? Moral cowardice, plain and simple.
- In a show of maturity that’s on par with walking around with your cock hanging out of your pants. [↩]
- Adkisson, I think, can safely be described as conservative. [↩]
- This is not to say that there is not overlap. There is. Pretending otherwise is just bullshit. But conservatism, in and of itself, does not have anything really tangibly in common with white supremacism. [↩]