In the wake of Saturday's tragic shooting in Tucson, Arizona, we're beginning to take a long overdue look at the state of our political debate. But that examination needs to be honest.
There are times when both the right and the left are equally guilty of some sin or other, and the press' instinct to characterize every problem as the equal responsibility of both sides does no harm. This is not one of those times. The simple, unavoidable fact is that it is the right that has been purveying the rhetoric of violence in the last few years. Many conservatives have declined to participate in this festival of hate and rage, and we should be careful to give credit, as well as blame, where it's due. Everyone, though, has an obligation to look at what they've said and what they've tolerated.
Conservatives are now arguing that they don't bear any responsibility for the horrific act of murder committed by Jared Loughner, because he seems so clearly disturbed. That, though, is precisely where the environment comes in. When this young man's demons and rage finally boiled over, where were they targeted? Not at his landlord, or his teachers, or the owner of his local supermarket but at his representative in Congress. She was the one Loughner decided to go after. As Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik said, "When you look at unbalanced people, how they respond to the vitriol that comes out of certain mouths about tearing down the government. The anger, the hatred, the bigotry that goes on in this country is getting to be outrageous."
Extreme rhetoric has always been with us, but what has changed in the last two years is its particular character. Over and over again, we've heard talk of revolution, references to shooting and killing, invocations of Thomas Jefferson's quotation that the tree of liberty must be watered with the blood of tyrants and patriots. What drives the violent rhetoric forward is the idea that one's opponents are not simply wrong or misguided but are your enemies, motivated by evil.
Anyone who listens to conservative talk radio or watches Fox News knows that this is the essence of how leading conservative media figures characterize Democratic politicians and liberals more generally. Not only are liberals evil but their plans constitute a monumental and immediate threat to your life and liberty. Believe those two things, and violence starts to look like a reasonable reaction to an emergency situation.
If you don't believe that the likes of Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck actually say these things, then you are simply unfamiliar with their programs. This point must be emphasized: The ones purveying this poison are not fringe figures, not lone nuts standing on a street corner, but people granted authority by the Republican establishment and treated with deference by the media. When a member of the United States Congress tells his supporters, "Let's beat that other side to a pulp! Let's take them out! Let's chase them down! There's going to be a reckoning!" and doesn't get condemned, it validates incitement to violence. When a man with a cable television show and a nationally syndicated radio show compares Obama to Hitler again and again, then tells you that the administration is planning to herd people into concentration camps, it convinces people that their most awful fears could be true. That kind of venomous rhetoric isn't the province of some obscure blog commenter or teenager at the back of a protest with a misspelled sign. It comes from the highest reaches of the movement, from people with power and influence.
So please, spare us the false equivalencies, the idea that "both sides" are letting their passions run away with them to the same degree and in the same ways. It just isn't true, and you know it. Perhaps at various points in history it was true, but not today. There are no Democratic members of Congress telling their supporters to "beat that other side to a pulp" and "take them out." There are no liberals brandishing assault weapons at town meetings. There are no progressive talk-show hosts who use anything like the eliminationist rhetoric of Limbaugh or Beck. There just aren't.
We may never have a complete understanding of what led Jared Loughner to his murderous plan. You don't have to think the right is "responsible" for what happened in Tucson to agree that conservatives ought to take the opportunity to take a good hard look at what they've been saying and how they've been saying it. But so far, the only person I've seen use this as an occasion for personal reflection is liberal TV host Keith Olbermann, who said on the air, "Violence, or the threat of violence, has no place in our democracy, and I apologize for and repudiate any act or anything in my past that may have even inadvertently encouraged violence. Because for whatever else each of us may be, we all are Americans."
I'd love to hear something like that from Beck or Limbaugh, but we shouldn't be surprised when we don't. What we ought to hear, though, is some other prominent Republicans admitting that many of their allies have gone too far. What if Mitch McConnell had the courage to condemn the hate-mongers of talk radio? What if John Boehner stood up and said that though he disagrees with Barack Obama on most policy issues, he also believes that Obama is a patriotic American who wants his country to be safe, prosperous, and just? What if George Will said that he regrets not speaking out about the extremism in the right's ranks sooner, but now he's going to make up for lost time?
Conservatives talk a lot about "personal responsibility," which usually means the kind of responsibility someone else has to take. But now they have a chance to take some of their own.