Pretending that rhetoric doesn’t involve a measure of culpability is a wonderfully convenient fiction, isn’t it? “I was just giving orders.”
When emotions are running hot and the situation is complicated, is any medium more perfectly suited to making things worse than Twitter? I think not. The point I tried, and largely failed, to make on Twitter yesterday wasn’t that Sarah Palin told Jared Loughner to shoot Congresswoman Giffords. She didn’t do that, clearly, didn’t buy him a gun or tell him who to point it at.
But, of course. I’ve talked about this before.
The distinction between “issuing an order that somebody be killed” and “fostering the rhetoric of violent reprisal, thinly-veiled threats and demonized opponents” may well be one you can rely on to keep you out of jail, but you shouldn’t pretend that it leaves you with clean hands and a clear conscience. You can’t talk about “death panels”, “FEMA concentration camps” and “Second Amendment remedies” and then pretend when it’s far too late that you didn’t at all mean what you very obviously meant the whole time.
Glenn Beck has fantasized on air about choking Michael Moore to death. G. Gordon Liddy has said, on his radio show, that when ATF agents knock on your door, you should shoot them in the head. Ann Coulter’s address to CPAC included the line that her “only regret with Timothy McVeigh is he did not go to the New York Times building.” Sarah Palin’s PAC has painted crosshairs over the district of Congresswoman Giffords, among others. These aren’t people talking about video games or Fight Club, or any obvious fictions; these are real examples from real people who continue to be supported by their institutions and echoed by their colleagues. They have been legitimized and normalized by the institutions that support, fund and enable them, and the message is unambiguously that what they’ve said is perfectly acceptable.
That’s the space this happened in, where somebody with a tenuous grip on their sanity was told over and over again that these specific people were the enemy, that this is a war and that violence is acceptable. That’s the context. Is that the same as culpability? Of course not.
But the context matters. And the people who’ve done their best to shape and feed that context into the monster it is now understand that. The Glenn Becks and Michael Savages and Ann Coulters and Tea Partiers of the world have been extremely well-served by fostering violence, racism and fear, and tragedies like this one don’t exist in a void.