US commentators are currently debating whether the man accused of killing six people, including a federal judge, wounding 13 and shooting Democrats congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords in the head is simply a crazed individual or whether his violent act was a product of increasingly violent political rhetoric and imagery, imagery like these Sarah Palin campaign crosshair posters:



But as violence in political rhetoric is brought into question, there are still very sketchy details coming to hand about the accused shooter, 22-year-old Jared Loughner.



When asked if Giffords had any enemies soon after the shooting, her father replied “Yeah, the whole Tea Party.”

But so far no connection between the Tea Party and Loughner has been established.

You can watch a bizarre YouTube clip apparently made by Loughner as an introduction to himself here, where he writes “I know who is listening. Government Officials, and the People. Nearly all the people, who don’t know this accurate information of a new currency, aren’t aware of mind control and brainwash methods. If I have my civil rights, then this message wouldn’t have happen (sic).”

Many commentators have been referencing Palin’s “Don’t react, reload!” tweet. But both the poster and the tweets date back to March 2010. And as The Washington Independent‘s David Weigel points out, Palin’s “don’t react, reload” tweet isn’t an call to bear arms. “…That’s a reference to what, according to Palin, is a family witticism. The final chapter of Going Rogue begins with a quote from her father, Chuck Heath: ‘Sarah’s not retreating; she’s reloading!'”

Palin was quick to offer her condolences for the Arizona shootings on her Facebook page.

Paul Krugman at the New York Times wasn’t impressed: “I see that Sarah Palin has called the shooting ‘tragic’. OK, a bit of history: right-wingers went wild over anyone who called 9/11 a tragedy, insisting that it wasn’t a tragedy, it was an atrocity.”

The local county sheriff Clarence Dupnik came out immediately after the shootings and declared “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… And unfortunately, Arizona I think has become sort of the capital. We have become the mecca for prejudice and bigotry.”

When asked if it was this prejudice and bigotry that caused the violence, Dupnik replied “All I can tell you is that there’s reason to believe that this individual may have a mental issue. And I think that people who are unbalanced are especially susceptible to vitriol.”

Harsh new anti-immigration laws — which insisted immigrants must always carry their papers and gave police new abilities to charge suspected “illegals”  — dominated the political agenda in Arizona in 2010. Giffords voted against these reforms. And as Chris McGreal explains in The Guardian, Gifford has struggled with Tea Party rage against her in the past, thanks to her support of healthcare and her stance against Arizona’s immigration laws. Her office was ransacked not long after Palin’s infamous cross-hair posters came out.

Another alarming incident with violent overtones occurred when her opponent in the recent election, Tea Party backed Jesse Kelly — whom Giffords only narrowly beat — advertised a campaign event, with brochures that read: “Get on Target for Victory in November. Help remove Gabrielle Giffords from office. Shoot a fully automatic M16 with Jesse Kelly.”

Howard Kurtz expresses incredulity that Palin was truly attempting to incite violence, writing in the Daily Beast about the proliferation of military terminology in the media:

“Let’s be honest: Journalists often use military terminology in describing campaigns. We talk about the air war, the bombshells, targeting politicians, knocking them off, candidates returning fire or being out of ammunition. So we shouldn’t act shocked when politicians do the same thing. Obviously, Palin should have used dots or asterisks on her map. But does anyone seriously believe she was trying to incite violence?”

Conservative blogger Erick Erickson also writes on the dangers of blaming the Tea Party movement on RedState:

“It should not be, but the media, under the guise of ‘a full exposition’ of the evil in Arizona, is back to subtly and not so subtly pinning the blame for the attempted assassination of the Congresswoman and the related shootings on the Tea Party movement, Sarah Palin, Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, me, you, and everyone right of centre…

Ironically, by perpetuating the lie — by even treating it as a legitimate topic of consideration to revisit the accusations of violence and hate the media tried to run with prior to the November election — that the Right and the Tea Party incited this evil act, the Left and media may very well incite violence against the Right.”

But there’s a reason we call killings or attempted killings of political figures “assassinations”. They are an inherently political act, writes James Fallows in The Atlantic:

“It is legitimate to discuss whether there is a connection between that tone and actual outbursts of violence, whatever the motivations of this killer turn out to be. At a minimum, it will be harder for anyone to talk — on rallies, on cable TV, in ads — about ‘eliminating’ opponents, or to bring rifles to political meetings, or to say “don’t retreat, reload.”

This is a turning point, an incident that will determine the US political landscape moving forward, argue many commentators.

“The more pressing question, though, is where this all ends — whether we will begin to re-evaluate the piercing pitch of our political debate in the wake of Saturday’s shooting, or whether we are hurtling unstoppably into a frightening period more like the late 1960s”, argues Matt Bai in the New York Times.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey