I automatically recoil at the suggestion that people should be held responsible for the actions of others, especially when it comes down to the influence they supposedly have on those they've never met. It's the kind of Lieberman-esque thinking that brought us the culture wars, the scapegoating of video games and a decade's worth of Ice-T demonization. As someone who did not emerge unscathed from that ignoble period in our history, I instinctively feel that the people who trade in those kinds of arguments are demagogues and hustlers.
And for those who want to attribute an overt conservative or liberal agenda to Jared Loughner -- I'm not seeing it. Not saying it's not there, just saying I don't see it, at least not yet. I'm sure we'll learn more over the coming days, but there wasn't a political agenda behind the shootings at Columbine, or the Beltway Snipers, or Virginia Tech. When the target is a U.S. Congresswoman of course the context is different, but in the end it may be that Loughner's conscious motives are as equally disturbed, idiosyncratic and non-political as those of the Columbine shooters.
So, it's somewhat surprising, even to me, that I find myself here -- saying that Sarah Palin's actions have been so utterly self-involved and reckless that they should forever disqualify her from occupying a position of political leadership in this country again.
But, here I am.
People are arguing about whether Palin influenced the Arizona shooter or not, but my point is that her actions are indefensible completely aside from that.
Consider what was happening in March of last year:
- Friday, March 19: Mike Vanderboegh of Pinson, Alabama, the former leader of the Alabama Constitutional Militia, puts out a call for modern "Sons of Liberty" to break the windows of Democratic Party offices nationwide in opposition to health care bill.
- Friday morning: Brick thrown through the Niagra Falls office of Rep. Louise Slaughter, who was also receiving threatening voice mail messages referring to a sniper.
- Friday night or Saturday morning: Brick thrown through the Democratic Party headquarters window in Wichita, Kansas with anti-Obama rhetoric written on it.
- Saturday, March 20: Brick thrown through the window of the Rochester, NY Democratic headquarters. Attached is a note with a Barry Goldwater quote: "Extremism in defense of liberty is no vice."
- Sunday, March 21: A fist sized rock thrown through the window of the Hamilton County Democratic Party headquarters in Cincinnati, Ohio after the health care bill passes.
- Sunday, March 21: Front door of Gabby Giffords office smashed out, presumably by a brick or a pellet gun.
- Monday, March 22: Propane gas line severed at the house of Tom Periello's brother by a self-identified Tea Party activist who believed Periello lived there.
- Following the health care vote: Bart Stupak receives a fax with with a drawing of a noose and an anonymous voice mail saying: "You're dead. We know where you live. We'll get you." Betsy Markey receives telephone threats of violence. A man threatens to burn down John Boccieri's house.
I know many Americans are angry over this health-care bill, and that Washington Democrats just aren't listening. But, as I've said, violence and threats are unacceptable. That's not the American way. We need to take that anger and channel it into positive change. Call your congressman, go out and register people to vote, go volunteer on a political campaign, make your voice heard -- but let's do it the right way.
Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell and Ken Cuccinelli also condemned the vandalism. That's the bare minimum the public should be able to expect from a political figure in the midst of a tense situation fraught with escalating violence.
So, what does Sarah Palin do? On March 23, on the heels of all this violence, she chooses to launch her campaign at TakeBackthe20.com with a map of 20 members of Congress in the crosshairs -- including Giffords, Perriello and others who have just been targets.
A 9:30 am on March 23, she tweets: "Don't Retreat, Instead - RELOAD!"
At a time when other leaders in the Republican party are trying to turn down the heat, Palin decides to fuel the outrage to advance her own political influence in the next election. She sends out an unmistakeable signal: keep going.
The climate of violence that provided the context for the actions of the Tucson shooter predates Sarah Palin's entry onto the national political scene. The eliminationist rhetoric that enabled and advanced the wars on the Middle East, the amorality and nihilism perpetuated by the senseless violence we continue to inflict on our enemies -- it certainly can't be laid at her feet. The death of a 9 year-old girl at the hands of Jared Loughner is equally as tragic as those of the children gunned down in the Apache helicopter video. Our cultural boundaries regarding "right" and "wrong" have become totally arbitrary and conditional. Why are we surprised with a soldier like Jesse Kelly comes back from Iraq and announces an M16 shooting event to "target" Gabby Giffords and "send her packing?
We reap what we sow.
None of that, however, excuses Sarah Palin's complete and utter failure of responsible leadership in the situation. She says she did not intend for anyone to take her literally when she placed crosshairs over Gabby Giffords' district on her target map, and I don't doubt that's true.
But the fact remains that at a time when members of Congress were on the receiving end of death threats and vandalism, Sarah Palin thought the time was ripe to turn them into political targets and press her advantage. Instead of assessing the situation appropriately and exercising restraint, she poured gasoline on the fire. She made the decision to further inflame and recklessly exhort her supporters to escalate, to "reload" rather than "retreat."
Did she not understand she was speaking to a lot of people who were already at the brick throwing-phase? Or did she just not care?
Republican consultant Todd Harris, speaking about Palin's crosshairs map and "reload" rhetoric, says that "politicians say these things because they work....The public, or at least segments of the public on the right and the left, respond to it. It raises money and builds organization."
Anyone who has ever done political organizing of any kind knows that he's right. When people are extremely emotional about something, that's the time they're willing to take action, sign up, donate. And that's all Sarah Palin saw at the moment. She wanted to rally her supporters, build her organization, exercise her political muscle. Either she was oblivious to the potential for escalating violence, or she made a conscious decision to act in her own self-interest and ignore it.
Everyone makes mistakes. But anyone waiting for Sarah Palin to acknowledge she might have made one here is going to have some time on their hands. Following the Tucson shooting, Palin's aide disingenuously claimed that the crosshairs were meant to represent a "surveyor's symbol," nothing more "We never ever, ever intended it to be gun sights. It was simply cross-hairs like you'd see on maps," she told Tammy Bruce.
Come on. I think we all know what the word "reload" means. Palin herself has referred to the map targets as "bulls eye[s]." She's keenly aware of what she said and what she meant when she said it, and has been scrubbing her internet presence of such references ever since the shooting.
Instead of taking responsibility an exercising leadership, however, she's pushing aides into the media to tell whoppers to paint herself as the supreme victim. The "obscene" and "appalling" part of the shooting, apparently, is that Sarah Palin -- a national political figure who ran for the Vice Presidency in 2008 -- should be asked to address the fact that she literally painted Gabby Giffords in the crosshairs last year.
If Palin didn't recognize the volatility of the situation at the time, Giffords certainly did. As she told MSNBC:
Community leaders, figures in our community need to say "look, we can't stand for this." ...[W]e're on Sarah Palin's targeted list...the way that she has it depicted has the crosshairs of a gunsight over our district. And when people do that, they've gotta realize there's consequences to that action.
I won't speculate on the role Palin played in motivating the actions of Jared Loughner -- nobody can know that for sure, probably not even him. But the irresponsible nature of Palin's actions speak for themselves, and don't need the affirmation of outside events to qualify as alarming and foolhardy. You want to act recklessly? Fine, drive a race car. Put out oil fires. Climb the Himalayas. You do not have the maturity or the judgment to be President of the United States.
Further, Palin's retreat into self-pity and victimization in the wake of the shooting demonstrates that she is utterly devoid of self-reflection, completely unable to acknowledge her failure to gauge the dangers inherent in the situation at the time, or learn from her mistakes. She acts like a sneaky teenager. She lies. She pushes others out there to take the hits for her, incapable of even acknowledging her role as a political leader who consciously tries to exert influence over how her followers should interpret and respond to events.
Sarah Palin's political career is probably toast, due in large part to the fact that the GOP doesn't want her messing up their plans for the next Presidential election like she did the 2010 Senate races. And the person who will regret her retreat from the political landscape more than anyone will be Barack Obama, who dreams nightly of a race against Palin in 2012. Gone will be the bright shiny object distraction of "look over there, it's Sarah Palin!" from the broken promises of the Democratic establishment. The misogyny that so often fuels attacks on her from the left will happily join in the fray, as a bipartisan chorus comes together to write a political epitaph that will be widely celebrated across the political spectrum.
None of that will change the underlying dynamics that led to the shooting of 20 people at a Tucson supermarket. To repair that will require a much deeper foray into the national soul. But maybe it will serve as a cautionary tale for politicians willing to ride the dark side of populist anxiety to the top of the political heap at a time of economic hardship.
If Sarah Palin's well-deserved flameout can save us from the ascendancy of a much smarter, more adept Sarah Palin in the future, at least until we can navigate some sort of intelligent path forward, her self-inflicted political implosion will have served us all well.