When Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords collapsed outside the Safeway in Tucson Saturday morning, felled by a hail of bullets that killed six and wounded another 13 innocent people that had come to see her, some were quick to claim that the carnage was the product not merely of the tortured mind and trigger-happy fingers of the alleged shooter, 22-year-old Jared Lee Loughner.
Rather, many on the American Left said the horror could be traced to the malign influence of American conservatives; members of the Tea Party; right-wing pundits Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck; former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin; and Fox News.
That was the narrative of culpability spun in the immediate aftermath of the shootings by some leading liberal commentators and Democratic politicians -- despite warnings from religious leaders, lawyers, academics, ethicists, reporters and historians that such a rush to judgment only further deepens the partisan divide in America, and further poisons its discourse.
Within minutes after the attempted assassination of Giffords -- indeed, at a point when it was still erroneously believed in many quarters that she was dead, and the identity of her shooter was not publicly known -- some commentators, absent any credible evidence, were already busily laying blame for the atrocity in political terms. Nobel Prize-winning economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman blogged at 3:22 p.m. ET Saturday: "We don't have proof yet that this was political, but the odds are that it was."
Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik, a Democrat, also found a political element in Saturday's bloodshed. Dupnik argued that the "vitriol" of the country's harshly polarized political climate was partly to blame, arguing that unbalanced individuals are uniquely "susceptible" to vitriol. Dupnik added, in an interview with Fox News' Megyn Kelly: "We see one party trying to block the attempts of another party to make this a better country."
Asked by Kelly if he had any evidence Loughner was in any way influenced by political "vitriol," Dupnik offered none. "That's my opinion, period," he said.
Krugman, in his blog post on the Times website, went on to mention Giffords' presence last year on Palin's "infamous crosshairs list." This was a map, disseminated by Palin's political action committee, SarahPAC, denoting the districts of 20 vulnerable House Democrats with images of crosshairs overlaid on each. The map was accompanied by a caption saying: IT'S TIME TO TAKE A STAND. Giffords herself, during her narrow campaign victory over a Tea Party-backed opponent last year, had complained about this choice of imagery, telling MSNBC: "The way that (Palin) has it depicted, the crosshairs of a gun sight over our district ...When people do that, they've gotta realize there are consequences to that action."
Unnoted by Giffords then, or Krugman now, is the routine use of similar language and imagery by both parties in a culture obsessed with "battleground" states. Indeed, a nearly identical map, included in a Democratic Leadership Committee publication in 2004, featured nine bullseyes over regions where Republican candidates were considered vulnerable that year, and was accompanied by a caption reading: TARGETING STRATEGY. A smaller caption, beneath the bullseyes, read: BEHIND ENEMY LINES. The map illustrated an article on campaign strategy by Will Marshall of the Progressive Policy Institute.
Krugman's blog post on Saturday linked "the rhetoric of Beck, Limbaugh, etc." to "the violence I fear we're going to see in the months and years ahead," and added: "Violent acts are what happen when you create a climate of hate." Yet in all of the grammatically hobbled writings and statements that Loughner posted on the Internet -- in which, ironically, one of his chief obsessions was others' poor grammar -- the failed student and awkward loner made not a single reference to talk-radio or the TV hosts Krugman cited, to the health care debate or the Tea Party, to Sarah Palin or Fox News.
Still, Rep. Bill Pascrell, D-N.J., found conservative lawmakers and Fox News at fault. The eight-term lawmaker told the Bergen Record Saturday: "There's an aura of hate, and elected politicians feed it; certain people on Fox News feed it."
Pascrell, for his part, has appeared as a guest on Fox News at least 159 times, dating from a January 2002 appearance on "The O’Reilly Factor" ("Honor to talk to you," Pascrell told host Bill O’Reilly, at the end of their segment) to an appearance last month on "Your World with Neil Cavuto" -- 38 days before the Tucson massacre. "The nation needs to be united right now," Pascrell told the hosts of "Fox & Friends" last Jan. 28, nearly a year before he blamed the network and GOP politicians for the attempted assassination of Giffords. "We don't do the nation any good by simply dividing amongst ourselves."
Without mentioning Palin by name, Sen. Richard Durbin of Illinois, the number-two Democrat in the Senate, alluded on Sunday to the 2008 GOP vice presidential nominee in his discussion of the causes of the violence the day before. Durbin invoked "don't retreat, reload," a phrase from a well publicized Twitter message once sent by Palin, as the kind of "violent" sentiment that can provoke incidents like Saturday's. "These sorts of things, I think, invite the kind of toxic rhetoric that can lead unstable people to believe this is an acceptable response," Durbin said on CNN’s "State on the Union" program.
Some prominent commentators objected to these comments.
"To try to place blame before an investigation has occurred is in itself inciting hatred," countered Christian missionary Franklin Graham. Reached by Fox News minutes after returning to the United States from Haiti, where he had hosted Palin on a humanitarian mission last month, Graham offered prayers for the wounded and dead, and cautioned against ascribing a political motivation or origin to the violence.
"Because we may disagree with a person from another political party, and something bad happens to that person, does that mean that we are responsible for what happens to that person? By no means. But If somebody calls for someone to go out and shoot someone in the head, then that person is just as responsible as the person who pulled the trigger."
Historian Douglas Brinkley agreed.
"We've got to be careful here that we don't use this as a censoring moment, or use this as a Democrats-beating-up-on-Republicans (moment), or using it as an opportunity to humiliate anybody who's affiliated with the Tea Party movement," Brinkley said. The author of numerous acclaimed biographies, Brinkley has edited the collected papers of the late Gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson, and won the 2007 Robert F. Kennedy Book Award for "The Great Deluge: Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans, and the Mississippi Gulf Coast."
"There are definitely times when you have fallout from politics," Brinkley told Fox News in an interview from Austin, Texas, "but we don't want to lose the central point here: that this is a deranged person, that there's nobody serious in the Republican Party that would want to see such a heinous event happen at a Safeway. So we've got to be careful not to be braggadocio, not to use this, if you're a Democrat, as a weapon."
Reporter Pete Williams, who covers legal affairs and the Supreme Court for NBC News, steered his viewers away from a political explanation for the violent attack on a political figure. "The initial picture we're getting is that this is not what you would call, in the traditional sense, a politically motivated act," Williams said. "This seems to be the actions of a very disturbed individual."
That call was widely heard on Fox News.
"I don't know whether he's insane or not, but I do know that we need a reasonable discussion of what was going on with this man," said Peter Johnson, Jr., a Fox News legal analyst. "(Loughner's Internet) statements, taken together with the police conduct with regard to his known activities -- especially taken with the fact that he was rejected by the Army -- paints a disturbing picture of a mind that appears not to be intact. ... And we need to understand that the spinning wheel of recrimination at this point should be based on the facts, and not based on some rhetorical determination."
Juan Williams, the liberal Fox News analyst and historian of the civil rights movement, said Sheriff Dupnik "speaks for a lot of people" who would like to see the tenor of the American political debate dialed down a notch. "People realize that in the era of Obama, a lot of highly charged vilification of the president has been going on, particularly during the health-care debate," Williams said. "So people are alert for anything that could possibly be tied to the highly polarized political environment."
At the same time, Williams recalled the "bump" in public opinion polls President Clinton received when, in the wake of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, he attacked right-wing radio hosts. Williams urged Democrats to refrain from adopting a similar tactic today.
"Some on the left are taking cheap shots," Williams said, "to try to keep Republicans on the defensive. In all honesty, I don't see any direct connection between any Republican group and this shooter ... who is a psycho nut-job."
Peter Wehner, a senior fellow at the Ethic and Public Policy Center in Washington, called the comments by Krugman, Durbin, and other liberals "sickening."
"People were taking a terrible human tragedy and using it as a political club, and there wasn’t even a moratorium of 24 hours, or even 24 minutes," said Wehner.
A veteran of several Republican White Houses and the co-author of "City of Man: Religion and Politics in a New Era," Wehner said it would have been "legitimate" if the Tucson massacre had provoked a dialogue about gun control, because conservatives often seize on terrorist incidents to frame national security debates. But he also saw a double standard at work. "When (former Rep. Alan) Grayson called his opponent 'Taliban Dan' (during Grayson's losing re-election campaign last year against GOP challenger Daniel Webster)," Wehner said, "I didn’t notice the left being concerned about an atmosphere of violence."
Palin has issued a statement expressing her "sincere condolences" to those affected by Saturday’s shootings, but has not responded to suggestions that her statements, often studded with references to hunting and firearms, played some role in the Tucson massacre.
Fox News’ Jake Gibson contributed to this report.