01/13/2011 01:16 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Victims and Imposters

If any further proof of the dysfunction and distortion in the American political scene is needed, the reactions to the Tucson shooting provide conclusive evidence. In short, some of the worst offenders in creating the climate of political vitriol are attempting to don the mantel of victimhood to deflect criticism of their political invective.

The responsible media reported the tragedy and sought to raise broader questions of gun culture, political culture, the interaction of the two and the dangers posed by mental illness in the mix.

The gun issues are serious, somber and urgent but not new. They were raised after the shootings at Virginia Tech University, also by a deranged young man with too easy access to guns including a Glock. But they go back to school shootings in Colorado, Arkansas, Kentucky and elsewhere. The availability of semi-automatic weapons and mega-clips of 30 bullets is certainly a topic that deserves rational discussion. The same is true with the need to better screen gun purchases by mental health criteria. Concealed carry without a permit? In a bar? No gun safety training required? Certainly these issues are valid topics for civil and civilized discourse.

And how about the cultural issues? Is it a valid topic to explore whether the level of vitriol creates an atmosphere conducive to violence? Can statements about "second amendment solutions" plant unhealthy seeds in unstable minds. Does denigration of government service and indeed the government itself lower the threshold of violence. Again, these are serious questions and not new. They were raised after the Kennedy assassination and the Oklahoma City bombing.

It is important to again have a national conversation on guns and political toxins and mental health. It is important to keep clear the distinction between personal guilt and contributing factors, no matter how small. It is important to use well thought out and moderate vocabulary. But it is necessary to have the conversation. If not now, when? Do we have to await another tragedy before exploring what can be done to lessen the odds of a repeat slaughter?

But what was the reaction of the conservative talk machine when these legitimate questions were raised and discussed in the responsible media? The immediate reaction was to put on the hair shirt of victimhood and claim that they were being vilified. Did some commentators go too far and not make it clear enough that criticism of Sarah Palin's political tactics were not an accusation of guilt in the mad actions of a single individual? Yes, but those offenses were few and exaggerated.

Never wanting a tragedy to lead to comity, Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh raised the shrill level of rhetoric rather than toning it down and claimed that they were the victims of a vicious left wing attack. Rush said it was "all about" attacking him and his supporters. Glenn made the same point while reading Sarah's letter from a secure no question zone. When Palin emerged, she soared to new heights of martyrdom by claiming to be a victim of a "blood libel", once again showing her lack of vocabulary precision. These promoters of free speech sought to suppress discussion of uncomfortable facts and unflattering issues by claiming the mantel of the victims of the shootings. And they rarely, if ever, mentioned the actual victims.

The right wing talkers and bloggers need to know that it is not about them. It is about the victims, six dead, and one still in grave condition in the hospital. There was Gabriella, a congresswoman who was trying to stay connected with her constituents and promote moderate political positions and discourse. There was Ron, her district director, known for kindness and effectiveness. There was Christina, born on 9/11, who sought a career in public service, a career too often vilified on the right. And there was John, a fair and courageous federal judge. And there were 14 more and dozens more traumatized at the event. And there are the sons and daughters, siblings and parents and friends. The victims had names and those names were not Glenn, Rush or Sarah. To claim otherwise is to dishonor the true victims.