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Beyond Blood Libel: A Refudiation of Sarah Palin’s Lone Gunman Theory

2011 January 14

What if Sarah Palin had released something like this:

Todd and I are shocked and saddened by the news from Tucson today. Gabrielle Giffords and the other victims of today’s awful shooting are in our hearts—we grieve for the loss of those who died and hope for good news from Rep. Giffords’ doctors.

I cannot rid my mind of a piece of campaign literature my Political Action Committee released during this latest election cycle. It depicted a map of the United States, with cross-hairs over the twenty congressional districts we were “targeting,” including Arizona’s 8th district, which Giffords represents.

I hope with all my heart that the map had nothing to do with influencing this deranged psychopath to commit such a heinous act of violence. Nothing could have been farther from my intention. In this time of reflection, I vow not to use violent metaphors in a political context again, so that I never have to worry that my actions might be misconstrued with disastrous results.

I bet I would have written an article for this website, commending her (and not just because of the excellent copy). Instead, the response was this: her handlers scrubbed the map from her website, and an aide went on the air claiming that the cross-hairs were not cross-hairs at all but rather surveyor’s symbols (never mind that Palin herself had referred to the icon as a “bulls-eye”). Then, Palin went silent for three days, before issuing this statement.

The whole thing makes for what they call terrible optics: she took a relationship to violence that was exiguous and, by dishonesty and demagogy, made it look intimate. The mere fact of her silence betrayed her suspicions that she was involved, the omission of any mention of the map in her statement as glaring as her cringe-making mispronunciation of “pundits.” Madam, how like you this play?

Ms. Palin’s use of the phrase “blood libel,” of whose provenance she was apparently ignorant before using it (which she presumably did because it sounds ominous enough to be the title of a horror film) has garnered the most attention, but it is by no means the most troubling part of the statement.

“Acts of monstrous criminality stand on their own. They begin and end with the criminals who commit them,” she said, as though that were the only alternative to “Sarah Palin bears culpability.” What this obviously was meant to convey was a refudiation (a spontaneous Palinian neologism that I frankly find satisfying and clever) of the narrative that emerged in the days following the shooting that this massacre was collateral damage, brought on by a right-wing culture that has increasingly glorified violence and the suggestion thereof. I myself thought, at the first reports of the shooting, that, on the balance, he probably was quite likely to be a Beck-head, and I think I was right to suspect that and to remain wary of such people.

Thing is, though, I’m a sucker for empirical evidence, and mostly it does not point to Jared Lee Loughner as a foil-hat right-wing lunatic (after the mold of, say, Timothy McVeigh), gold obsession notwithstanding. In fact, a friend of his told Good Morning America, “He did not watch TV. He disliked the news. He didn’t listen to political radio.”

But even if it cannot be demonstrated that Loughner’s act grew out of the right-wing violence-glorifying culture, there remain critical pieces of context for understanding how culpability for violence is not the sole possession of the man who pulls the trigger. Arizona made the deepest cuts in the country to their mental health budget; Loughner was an obvious victim of this policy, standing as he did to benefit from such funding. Having been removed from school and rejected from the military on the grounds of his mental instability did not, owing to Arizona’s lax standards regarding firearms, prevent him from buying a gun, another important point.

I would posit that slashing funds for mental health care while making sure the mentally unstable can purchase artillery makes for a dangerous situation in which shootings like Loughner’s are more likely, but Palin would seem to disagree, thinking, as she claims to, that crimes “begin and end with the criminals who commit them.”

Would Sarah Palin say the same for members of al-Qaeda who don’t blow up buildings? In her memorable bungling of a question about the Bush Doctrine, she told ABC’s Charles Gibson:

I believe that what President Bush has attempted to do is rid this world of Islamic extremism, terrorists who are hell-bent on destroying our nation… In order to stop Islamic extremists, those terrorists who would seek to destroy America, and our allies, we must do whatever it takes, and we must not blink, Charlie. In making those tough decisions of where we go, and even who we target.

Obviously, Sarah Palin finds a link between Islamic extremism and terrorism against America, and she is right to, even though it contradicts her “lone gunman” point. I wonder, though, whether she would have made the same point about crimes beginning and ending with those who commit them if Jared Lee Loughner had been named Abdul Aziz. Wouldn’t she be right to suspect that a widespread inchoate movement which rallies around weapon-related symbols and idioms and has been known on a considerable number of occasions to resort to violence might have produced this result?

As part of last summer’s brouhaha over the so-called “Ground Zero mosque,” Palin tweeted, “Peaceful New Yorkers, pls refute the Ground Zero mosque plan if you believe catastrophic pain caused @ Twin Towers site is too raw, too real.” That crime apparently didn’t end with those who committed it (who did indeed end at the moment the crime did, although their chief financier remains at large). The durability of that crime was, to Palin, so great that it could extend to Feisal Abdul Rauf, whose connection to it was even more difficult to draw than was Palin’s (connection) to Loughner’s (crime).

If crimes begin and end with their perpetrators, then there is no way of preventing them, of understanding them. No one is any more likely to commit a crime than anyone else, and there are no root causes. No circumstances can be tweaked in order to lessen their probability. It would be senseless to focus on the border with Mexico, because people from Mexico are no more likely than anyone else to immigrate illegally. Palin, on this point, seems to refudiate herself.

The topic on which the “lone gunman” principle is most deeply at odds with her outlook is the topic she cares most deeply about: Sarah Palin. In her statement on Tucson, she had this to say: “But, especially within hours of a tragedy unfolding, journalists and pundints [pundits] should not manufacture a blood libel that serves only to incite the very hatred and violence they purport to condemn.” The journalists and pundits have served to incite hatred and violence? So much for the argument that violence is not incited by rhetoric, but begins and ends with its practitioners.

Sharron Angle’s warning that Democratic wins would provoke people to resort to “Second Amendment remedies” might not bear a causal relationship to Loughner’s spree, but the propinquity is too striking to suggest irrelevance. Same goes for Palin’s “Don’t Retreat, Instead – RELOAD!” or Michelle Bachmann’s call for “armed and dangerous” resistance to climate crisis legislation. Rather, calls for violence, even ones tamped down for the purposes of plausible deniability, are irresponsible in a democratic society. And even if this crime wasn’t theirs to answer for, the next one might be.

The only way to assure that no shootings have to weigh on your own conscience is never, in any way, to advocate for shootings.

3 Responses
  1. January 15, 2011

    Well said. While I agree with you – there was one point that jarred slightly with me. I am a mental health worker, as well as having Bi Polar Disorder myself. I accept your concern about cuts in the mental health budget, but it’s important to remember that mentally ill people are much more often the victims of violent crime than the perpetrators of it. That said, I condemn unreservedly the shootings, and applaud you highlighting the sinister edge in Sarah Palin’s response.

  2. January 17, 2011

    Well said. (And I agree with Nicholas Werner’s point, made above in the comments section, that the mentally ill are statistically much more likely to be the victims of violent crime than to be perpetrators. Nonetheless, I also completely agree with your position that allowing mentally ill people to buy guns makes no sense.)

    However, the obvious flaw I see with your argument here is that you’re attempting to use logic and consistency to talk about Sarah Palin. I think the only result that reliably produces is a stress migraine.

  3. January 20, 2011

    With all due respect, I think this article fails to address what we need to do, in order to move onwards and upwards. Criticising Palin at length neither contributes to our understanding of the tragedy, nor yield any particular insight into, nor wisdom towards, social progress.

    I agree that Palin is not the most diplomatic of politicians. Nor does she share our education and cultural sensibilities. We all know this already.

    The question is: what may enlighten us about what we can do towards creating the kinds of discerning, caring, thoughtful communities we want to be a part of?

    All I read are specific attacks on her language use, and on her (somewhat ignorant or culturally/historically insensitive) statements of self-defense. I don’t think attacking her does anyone any good, and moreover, I think it makes us sound like the people we tend to criticise.

    Sarah Palin is irrelevant to our progress. Planted in the media limelight by the Republican party, she successfully distracts us from asking the tough questions to relevant politicans: why are we still in Iraq? What have we done to address the economic crisis? How will we provide a better education to our young people?

    These are the questions I hoped the Busy Signal would address.

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