My latest cartoon is an attempt to tell Sarah Palin all the things I’ve been thinking since the Tucson Shootings.
Yes, our polarized media obsessively apportions blame to each opposing side, and yes, many astute observers have rightly pointed out that this picture is more complicated than that of an ideologically driven psychopath carrying out a political assassination.
As Charles M. Blow of the New York Times writes, “The only problem is that there was no evidence then, and even now, that overheated rhetoric from the right had anything to do with the shooting.”
But, to Mr. Blow, I would retort, the absence of evidence is not the evidence of absence.
The fact of the matter is that human psychology monstrously complex. While it seems for now that ideology and/or partisan vitriol was not the primary motivating factor behind Jared Lee Loughner’s shooting spree, we cannot be sure what effect a public discourse rife with fear-mongering and violent rhetoric might have on a conspiratorial and paranoid mind.
And our political discourse is certainly rife with violent rhetoric—from Glenn Beck’s incessant end-of-times ramblings, to the ludicrous chicken-little-esque “death panel” scare, to Sharron Angle’s “Second Amendment remedies“, to all the ways in which guns and politics are poisonously intertwined in our politics, to of course, Sarah Palin’s crosshairs (list shortened for lack of infinite space).
None of this is meant to diminish the guilt that lies squarely on the shoulders of Jared Lee Loughner. Sarah Palin is right to point out, a la Ronald Reagan, that “we must reject the idea that every time a law’s broken, society is guilty rather than the lawbreaker. ” But guilt and responsibility are not always equivalent.
Sarah Palin and the voices that have contributed to our explosive political discourse are not guilty of perpetrating the Tucson murders, but their contribution does carry with it a certain level of responsibility.
In content, implication and reception, we are responsible for what we say. Words are powerful, and have effects that reach far beyond their original conception. In mature public discussion, our opinion makers should ask themselves, “based on my position of power, what part might I have played in this event?” “Have I contributed to the atmosphere of fear and violence which may have influenced this troubled mind?”
As Jeffrey Winbush astutely writes,
“where does Palin take responsibility for the gun sights trained on the districts of Democratic representatives, including that of Giffords? Where was Palin’s concession that perhaps “Don’t retreat — reload!” might not have been the best way to get her point across?…Palin uses loaded words and images and then tries to act surprised when they blow up. No, she didn’t pull the trigger in Arizona, and I wasn’t expecting her to issue a half-assed apology, but she could have expressed a little less of the “Why is everybody picking on me?” whine and a lot more of the “Let’s set aside our differences and come together as Americans to help the victims and start the healing.” She could have done that, but she decided to stick to her guns. As usual, it’s all about Sarah.”
If Mrs, Palin and other opinion makers mentioned in this article had a smidgen of self-awareness, they would realize that what is being asked of them is not an admission of guilt—this is not an issue of hard forensic evidence vs. groundless speculation. What is being asked of them is merely a bit of humility, introspection and the integrity attendant a developed sense of personal responsibility.