So how does it feel, Sarah Palin? You put gun sights on a map showing the congressional districts of Gabrielle Giffords and some others voting for the Obama healthcare legislation. And how about you, Sharon Angle? Didn’t you talk of “domestic enemies in Congress” and “Second Amendment remedies” against politicians like Harry Reid, your foe in the U.S. Senate race in Nevada? I’m hardly a fan of mushy commentary, but in general I agree with Matt Bai’s thoughts in the New York Times on the incendiary outbursts of certain politicians and media stars.
The shootings of Rep. Giffords, a federal judge and others at a Tucson grocery recall an ugly episode in yellow journalism when a writer for the New York Journal—perhaps Arthur Brisbane—said in an editorial against President McKinley: "If bad institutions and bad men must be got rid of only by killing, then the killing must be done." Even a sensationalist like William Randolph Hearst, the Journal’s owner, felt compelled to yank the editorial from subsequent editions. The circulation of the Journal plummeted due to this and other craziness, as recalled in a Pulitzer biography that I’m reading, and the name in 1901 became The American. The conservative media’s hatred of JFK, in the months before his assassination, also comes to mind.
No, I don’t think that politicians like Palin and Angle and commentators like Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck should be stripped of their First Amendment rights and forced to limit themselves to mush, and in fact I agree with those people and their Tea Party sympathizers that plenty needs changing in America (even if my own remedies would be rather different from theirs). But if nothing else, there are practical reasons, not just decency-related ones, for not sounding like right-wing militiamen. Even after more than a century, the Journal example continues to be instructive.
Detail: Some say the alleged shooter’s politics may have been leftwing, but whether that’s true or not, most lefties aren’t exactly posting maps with gun sights and calling for “Second Amendment remedies.” I take it for granted he was irrational, perhaps to the point where his apparent victims’ politics didn’t matter. But in this climate, he may well have been more inclined to act. Update, January 9: Check out The Cloudy Logic of ‘Political Shooting,’ by James Fallows, at The Atlantic.com.