The national reaction to the attempted assassination of Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords fell, predictably and sadly, along partisan lines. The most glaring example was the furor over news that Giffords was one of the politicians that former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin had "targeted for defeat" on her infamous map featuring rifle sights over the districts of 20 political foes with the slogan "Don't retreat — reload!"
American history has been irrevocably stained by unstable people attacking, and sometimes killing, political figures. Oftentimes the attackers have no political motives whatsoever. In the Arizona tragedy, there's no evidence that accused gunman Jared Loughner ever saw Palin's map, and Palin supporters reacted with outrage that the former Alaska governor's name was even brought into the discussion. It's not Palin's or anyone else's fault that Loughner did what he did, but the fact that Palin's name was even mentioned in connection with the controversy was entirely her own doing.
Politicians from both parties sling mud, but most avoid gun imagery in their messaging. Not Palin. She seems to revel in it — but she is far from alone. Last October, Robert Lowry, while running against incumbent Democratic Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz in Florida, appeared at a GOP gathering at a shooting range — and in a fit of imagined machismo took a few shots at a silhouette with Schultz's initials, DWS, written next to its head. At the time, he called it a "joke." (He has apologized.)
Some have pointed out extreme rhetoric is endemic on both the left and the right these days. That's true, but in this case it's a false equivalence. There are irresponsible, foolhardy people of all political stripes, but only one of them was recently a candidate for the second-highest office in the United States. Sarah Palin has drawn criticism because she's reckless, not because she's Republican. Many, many other Republicans managed to win their elections by campaigning on the issues, not on imagery that connotes gun violence.
In the wake of the uproar, Palin's camp attempted to walk back the gun-sight imagery of which it had been so proud just a few months before, whisking down her website and insisting the crosshairs were actually "surveyor's marks" — though Palin herself had referred to the symbols as bull's-eyes. By midweek, Palin had settled on a response: "Vigorous and spirited public debates during elections are among our most cherished traditions," she wrote, adding that, by criticizing her, "journalists and pundits" were manufacturing a "blood libel." Unfortunately for Palin, months before, even Giffords (who had received death threats for her vote on the Obama health care bill) had expressed concern over the imagery. "I'm not Sarah Palin," she said. "But I can say that in the years that some of my colleagues have served — 20, 30 years — they've never seen [discourse] like this."
Since the attack on Giffords, the biggest bipartisan issue on Capitol Hill is lawmakers' safety. Republican Congressman Peter King of New York, the new chair of the House Committee on Homeland Security, got gun-control fever and now intends to introduce a bill banning the carrying of firearms within 1,000 feet of federal-level legislators. Recently defeated Congressman Anh "Joseph" Cao of New Orleans, a Republican and fiscal conservative, wrote an essay suggesting that the government should pay for additional security "as a nominal part of the annual congressional budget." (Palin has less to fear than the average member of Congress; she travels with her own security detail.)
We think a better bipartisan response to this tragedy would be a renewed — and sustained — commitment by both parties to civil political discourse, which is precisely the issue Giffords herself raised in response to Palin's gun-sight message. To that end, leaders of both parties should heed the words of Giffords' brother-in-law, astronaut Scott Kelly, commander of the International Space Station, who said last week from space: "As I look out the window, I see a very beautiful planet that seems very inviting and peaceful. Unfortunately, it is not. These days, we are constantly reminded of the unspeakable acts of violence and damage we can inflict upon one another, not just with our actions, but also with our irresponsible words. We're better than this. We must do better."
The Arizona tragedy is not the fault of Sarah Palin or anyone else in the public arena, but we must demand better from those who aspire to lead. At a minimum, they must not set a bad example.