In light of all existing evidence, any attempt to blame "heated political rhetoric" for Saturday's shooting in Tucson is simply a lie. While most reporters are done peddling the lie that Sarah Palin caused the Tucson massacre, they've now moved on to this more nuanced lie.
At present it seems that Jared Lee Loughner's hatred for Gabrielle Giffords, apparently the intended target, stemmed from the congersswoman's inability to answer some incoherent question Loughner asked her in 2007. There is no evidence to suggest he was driven to violence by political rhetoric of any kind.
Liberal media types have been peddling the lie that conservatives and their "heated political rhetoric" are responsible for the recent Tucson shooting. But why such insistence on an obviously false story line? The answer seems to be, at least in the case of some, that Tucson could be to Barack Obama as Oklahoma City was to Bill Clinton.
In an article on Monday, Newsweek's Jonathan Alter was quite clear about his wish that Obama exploit the violence to "address various social ills." Alter even compared the event to the Oklahoma City bombing and Clinton's subsequent political maneuvering.
This horrific event offers the president a chance to show leadership qualities that he’s inexplicably hidden away in some blind trust. The shootings and the resulting debate over the climate of incivility play to his strengths as a calm and rational leader. Just as Bill Clinton’s response to the 1995 Oklahoma City bombings helped him recover from his defeat in the 1994 midterms, so this episode may help Obama change—at least in the short term--the trajectory of American politics.
Clinton did more than just speak movingly after Oklahoma City and pull the country together as griever-in-chief. He was able to use the event to discredit the militia movement and tamp down hate speech on talk radio enough that it wasn't much of a factor in his 1996 reelection. The Oklahoma City bombings were later seen by historians and Clinton-era officials as the turning point in his political comeback. Of course the viciousness of the attacks eventually resumed (especially after the Lewinsky scandal) but they weren’t as fierce again until the Obama years.
Looking back last spring on the 15th anniversary of the bombings, Clinton offered useful perspective. “The words we use really do matter,” he said. “There’s this vast echo chamber, and they go across space and they fall on the serious and the delirious alike.” That’s the critical point in assigning indirect blame for Tucson. We can never know exactly what hate speech produces, but why risk its interaction with underlying mental illness?
Alter, of course, understands the context in which he's writing this article. He knows that the chief "piece" of speech that has been blamed for the Tucson massacre - amazingly, and without regard for truth - has been Sarah Palin's "target map."
He also must know that absolutely no evidence has been found that connects Loughner with any piece of political rhetoric, any politician beyond Giffords herself, or any political message uttered by any mainstream American figure. In other words, in speaking out against "hate speech" in this context, he is condemning a phenomenon that, according to evidence currently available, has nothing to do with the shooting.
In McVeigh's case, we knew that he was motivated by events in Waco, Texas and other actions by the federal government, and could single out speech that contributed to his deranged mental state accordingly. But Alter cannot possibly point to a single bit of "hate speech" that caused Satuday's tragedy, since no evidence exists that Loughner was pushed to violence by political speech of any kind. So Alter's thinly-veiled call to censor such speech - "why risk" it? - makes absolutely no sense in this context. Unless, of course, he is trying to create an Oklahoma City-type narrative where none exists.
Whether or not he attends the funerals for the Tucson victims, Obama’s big chance to lead will come in his State of the Union address on January 25. He can both to speak to the moment thematically and confront the substantive concerns raised by the tragedy.
Conservatives like to argue that these are isolated incidents carried out by lunatics and therefore carry no big lessons (unless the perpetrator is Muslim, in which case it’s terrorism); liberals view them as opportunities to address various social ills. Obama is in the latter category and should act accordingly. “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste,” Rahm Emanuel famously said in 2008. The same goes for a shooting spree that gravely wounds a beloved congresswoman. Congress won’t enact gun control, as it did in the wake of the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy in 1968, but perhaps something positive can come from this.
Using a tragedy like Saturday's to aid in achieving some political end is not a new idea, by any means. Soon after Democrats were handed their shellacking at the polls in November, Democratic pollster Mark Penn told Chris Matthews that "Obama needs a similar kind of" event to Oklahoma City in order to rekindle his presidency.
At least a few Democrats had the Murrah building on their minds after Saturday's shooting. One unnamed Dem told Politico that the White House needs to "deftly pin this on the tea partiers…just like the Clinton White House deftly pinned the Oklahoma City bombing on the militia and anti-government people."
Time Magazine's Mark Halperin, who Tuesday was busy condemning conservatives for not shutting up and accepting the rhetorical beating given them by the mainstream press and lefty pundits, only a month ago noted that another OKC bombing or 9/11 attack would be really great for Obama's presidency:
No one wants the country to suffer another catastrophe. But when a struggling Bill Clinton was faced with the Oklahoma City bombing and a floundering George W. Bush was confronted by 9/11, they found their voices and a route to political revival.
It's not looking like Obama will find his "route to political revival" in Saturday's shooting, since there's no larger enemy to rail against in Tucson like there was in Oklahoma City. But that won't stop Alter and the rest of the media establishment desperate to see Obama's political revival from getting him to try.
*****UPDATE: James Taranto makes similar points to those above with respect to the dihonesty in claiming "rhetoric" is at all responsible for Saturday's shooting:
To describe the Tucson massacre as an act of "political violence" is, quite simply, a lie. It is as if, two days after the Columbine massacre, a conservative newspaper of the Times's stature had described that atrocious crime as an act of "educational violence" and used it as an occasion to denounce teachers unions. Such an editorial would be shameful and indecent even if the arguments it made were meritorious.