I’ll admit that my first thought on Saturday upon hearing that Gabrielle Giffords had been shot was that it was probably the work of a politically motivated right-wing extremist. And based on my initial conversations with colleagues and friends -- to say nothing of what I observed on Twitter -- I was hardly alone.
It certainly seemed logical. There have been plenty of times since the fall of 2008, when Barack Obama’s pending election as president began stirring some hysterical and occasionally alarming rumblings from the right’s fringe, that I’ve wondered if it wasn’t all leading to some act of violence against Obama or another major Democratic official. On Saturday, it seemed, that awful moment had actually arrived.
A day later, though, that’s not exactly how things look. To be sure, Giffords’ shooting -- and the shootings of nearly two dozen other people who were in her vicinity -- is a horrific tragedy, and at a certain level, it really doesn’t matter what motivated Jared Loughner, the 22-year-old suspect who is now in custody.
But it should also be noted that what we have learned so far about Loughner defies ideological branding. Based on his MySpace page and series of YouTube videos he apparently made, Loughner is fixated on his area’s literacy rate, government "mind control methods," and ... something having to do with America’s currency. A high school classmate describes him as "left-wing." He also is apparently fond of "Mein Kampf" and Karl Marx and may be somehow connected to a fringe anti-immigration group. And he despised Giffords. Make what you will of all of that. My hunch is that Lougnher is just basically crazy, and that his political thinking isn’t particularly coherent or organized.
Thus, the degree to which post-shooting commentary has focused on the provocative rhetoric of Sarah Palin and other Tea Party favorites doesn’t fully make sense to me. Sure, I understand the idea that Palin’s “Don’t retreat, reload!” command and Sharron Angle’s talk of "Second Amendment remedies," to pick two of the most frequently cited examples, may have helped in some way to create an atmosphere conducive to some nut picking up a weapon and taking matters into his own hands. And I understand the idea that, even if Loughner had no idea who Sharron Angle is and even if he never saw Palin’s infamous cross-hairs map, it still makes sense to encourage political leaders to ditch violent rhetoric.
But I also can’t help detecting a desire to make Saturday’s shooting something that it doesn’t seem to be – a chance to say, "See, we told you" to Palin and the Tea Party crowd. Or, as Rep. Raul Grijalva, who represents the district next to Giffords’ in Arizona, put it in an interview with the Nation: "Ms. Palin needs to look at her own behavior." He is far from alone in expressing this sentiment.
This seems unfair. At best, the connection between Palin’s behavior and Saturday’s tragedy is abstract. If anything, the shooting reinforces a point that James Fallows has made: The motives of political assassins rarely have anything to do with mainstream political debate and rhetoric. For now, at least, this seems to be the case with Loughner. This doesn’t mean it’s unreasonable to criticize Palin and others who push the envelope with their rhetoric. But when liberals use this moment to highlight every provocative statement Palin has made, it’s also not unreasonable if she says that her opponents are trying just a little too hard to make her the villain.