As soon as the shell casings hit the parking lot, the American left was trying to capitalize politically on the Gabrielle Giffords assassination attempt.
We all heard Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik, a Democrat, say:
"When you look at unbalanced people, how they respond to the vitriol that comes out of certain mouths about tearing down the government. The anger, the hatred, the bigotry that goes on in this country is getting to be outrageous. And unfortunately, Arizona I think has become the capital. We have become the mecca for prejudice and bigotry."
Politico quoted a veteran Democratic political strategist saying, "They need to deftly pin this on the tea partiers. Just like the Clinton White House deftly pinned the Oklahoma City bombing on the militia and anti-government people."
MoveOn.org was quick off the mark in an email to its supporters:
"The tragedy in Tucson has shaken us all to the core. Facts are still coming in, and we all must be careful not to jump to premature conclusions.
"But in the wake of this disaster one thing is clear: We must put an end to the rhetoric of violence and hate that has exploded in America over the past two years."
Of course, what's been different about the last two years is that there has been a Democratic government in Congress and the White House. MoveOn's implication is clear: "the rhetoric of violence and hate" is a Republican habit. There must have been nothing of this sort, at least none that came to public attention, during George W. Bush's presidency the previous eight years.
But I remember there being a lot of it, and of the sort that we have never seen before or since. Do you remember when comedian Craig Kilborn of The Late Late Show kicked things off in August 2000 by superimposing the words "snipers wanted" over an image of George W. Bush's nomination acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention? In 2006, the mockumentary Death of a President, through actual film footage and the wonders of computer-generated imagery, was able to simulate President Bush's assassination with sickening realism. Even Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., himself let slip the lingua Democratica of political assassination on Bill Maher's show in 2006. Bin's Corner, a comedy sharing website, has done a great job of documenting "the rhetoric of violence and hate" against George W. Bush at a multitude of political rallies. (A comedy sharing site is a strange place to find it, no?)
I rarely if ever hear this language among Republicans and conservatives. Nor did I hear it during the Clinton presidency. If my impressions are accurate, perhaps the reason for the difference is the much greater Christian influence within the GOP and a different understanding of the rule of law. Sarah Palin's "targeting" language seems relatively innocent, playing on her reputation as a hunter, no doubt. But the recent assassination attempt on Giffords does throw it into a context that changes the meaning. Whereas what Terry Tate "virtually" did to Sarah Palin (also here) during the 2008 campaign, brutally knocking her to the ground, is an unambiguous example of the graphic, shocking pornography of violence. And the death-wish language directed at Palin on Twitter (warning: much of it is vulgar and profane) following Saturday's shooting leaves no doubt as to the feelings of those behind the tweets.
Thankfully, we do not have a culture of political violence and assassination in America. In 2008, we saw an orderly and even friendly transfer of power from a Republican president to a Democratic one after eight years of sharply divided politics (and another eight years before that). Last week we saw the same good-natured transition from a particularly liberal congressional majority to a particularly conservative one.
For that reason, our occasional would-be assassins tend to come from what Ross Douthat calls "a murky landscape where . . . the line between ideological extremism and mental illness gets blurry fast." So even when rhetoric and imagery go off the rails, those who openly wish for the death of, for example, George W. Bush or Sarah Palin don't actually do it, and no one is moved to do it for them. Our political culture of decency and of the rule of law restrains people from deep within. But what lies deep within lunatics like Jared Loughner is entirely unpredictable.
But political culture is a fluid and thus fragile thing, and along with it the restraints that keep political anger within the bounds of the law and of fundamental mutual respect. Sending off petitions to secure agreement among political leaders not to use a certain kind of metaphor is like gathering toothpicks to help strengthen a load-bearing wall. This is where neighbor-love and respect for the image of God meet politics. This is where fear of God and habitual trust in His wise and good sovereignty become noticeable by their absence. This is where the Christian cultural heritage starts looking not so bad after all, and worth bolstering.