Monday, January 10, 2011

A Rush to Judgment

On Saturday, a gunman shot 20 people starting with a congresswoman, Gabby Giffords (D-AZ). Because of the "D" after her name and before any details came out many jumped to the conclusion that the shooting was inspired by the right-wing climate of hate. Some went to far as to directly blame Sarah Palin because she had "targeted" Giffords for defeat.

While it seems like a simple jump from Palin to the shooting, there are two major assumptions. The first is that when Palin says "target" she is really sending coded messages to her followers. The second is that the shooter is an avid follower of Palin and is willing to kill for her. The first assumption is ridiculous. Palin never called for outright violence and the terms that she has used are common in politics. Candidates are often targeted, but for defeat, not for assassination.

From the beginning, the facts did not support this interpretation. If this had been a political shooting then the gunman would have stopped after shooting Giffords. Instead he shot 19 other people including a 9-year-old who he killed. The rampage only stopped when he paused to reload and embers of the audience subdued him.

Unproven assumptions and inconvenient facts did not stop people like Paul Krugman from writing about eliminationist rhetoric from the right. To his credit, Keith Olbermann blamed both sides in one of his special commentaries. Both of these were written Saturday before any real facts had emerged.

By Sunday we knew a bit more. The (alleged) shooter, Jared Loughner, was described as a pothead who had created some rambling Youtube videos. No connection surfaced between Loughner and the Tea Party or Palin. That did not stop CNN from suggesting a link to Palin several times on Sunday.

By today a clearer picture has emerged of Jared Loughner. He was disturbed and some classmates worried that he would start shooting a classroom. One classmate said that as soon as she heard about the shooting she expected to hear that if was Loughner.

Loughner believed in many conspiracies. He believed that September 11 was committed by the government and that the space program is faked. He worried about government mind control through grammar and may have targeted Giffords because of a longstanding grudge against her. Three years ago he asked her, "What is government if words have no meaning?" and was upset with her answer.

Loughner is closer to the profile of a disaffected member of the left than of the right but it is unlikely that he acted on anyone's orders.

So, will we see a gushing of remorse and apologies to the right? Of course not. While some on the left were probably talking from their heart, others, like Paul Krugman, must have know better than to start hurling accusations without facts. The point of this was to shut down debate, to create a double standard where the left can continue saying anything it wants and the right has to self-censor. This was a cynical attempt to use a tragedy for political gain.

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