WASHINGTON—America’s toxic political divide gaped wide as ever in the aftermath of the tragedy in Tucson as the country’s noisiest talking heads engaged in unrestrained blamestorming, each side accusing the other feeding hatred.
With the motivations of accused assassin Jared Lee Loughner still unknown — the 22-year-old college dropout was arraigned in an Arizona courtroom Monday, having yet to utter a single word to his interrogators —recriminatory politic rhetoric filled the void.
After a weekend of speculation linking the Saturday rampage to aggressive, gun-themed rhetoric of conservative firebrand Sarah Palin and the Tea Party movement, the American right lashed back, accusing Democrats of politicizing pain caused by a lone lunatic.
Ultra-Conservative radio star Rush Limbaugh, widely regarded as a bellwether of right-wing debate, denounced Democrats as “ghouls” who are effectively “accusing a majority of Americans of being accomplices to murder.”
Fox News host Glenn Beck branded Loughner “not just a nut-job, but a left-wing nut-job.” Any reports to the contrary, said Beck, show that the American left is “desperately using every opportunity to convince you that somehow Sarah Palin is dangerous. Anything to shut her down, shut me up, shut Fox New down,” he said.
President Barack Obama, who led a minute of silence for the victims of the shooting spree targeting Arizona lawmaker Gabrielle Giffords, hailed the heroics that ended the rampage, thereby averting a greater tragedy than that which cost six lives and injured 20 others.
Describing how a Giffords intern rushed in to administer medical aid credited with helping save her life, Obama said, “Part of what that speaks to is the best of America even in the face of such mindless violence.”
Gifford remains in critical condition but is conscious and responsive to simple commands. Her University of Arizona medical team on Monday renewed hope for her eventual recovery, saying the congresswoman’s prospects entail “the full range of possibility.”
Accounts from former schoolmates and neighbours of Loughner added to the portrait of instability — an impression buttressed Monday night with the release of police mug shot taken after his arrest, showing Loughner with shaved head and a mercurial smile spread across his face.
But nothing in the emerging resume of a disturbed loner suggests coherent political leanings, one way or another.
In the absence of evidence, the blogosphere convulsed with argument over the backdrop of overheated rhetoric, debating the power of language in seeding violence. Many, like presidential historian Douglas Brinkley, warned against baseless politicization, denouncing those who would use the tragedy “as an opportunity to humiliate anybody in the Tea Party movement.”
Others, however, pressed the argument that even in the absence of a direct connection, the steady American drumbeat of incendiary, confrontational rhetoric contributes to a toxic political environment that helps, rather than hinders, the likelihood of violence from the mentally unstable.
“Conservative firebrands like Sarah Palin have performed the moral equivalent of yelling fire in a crowded movie theatre in this matter,” said Boston University social scientist Thomas Whalen, blogging at Politico.com. “And yes, I feel some of the blood is on their hands.”
Even in the face of such direct accusations, Palin has maintained an uncharacteristic silence since Saturday, when she issued a statement of condolence for the Tucson victims and their families. Over the weekend, Palin’s political action committee removed several items from its web site, including a campaign document that used crosshairs to signal the targeting Democrats in 20 districts in the run-up to the 2010 midterm elections, including that of Giffords.
Palin’s fellow Fox News contributor Beck, however, offered a hint of Palin’s reaction, disclosing excerpts of an email exchange the two shared over the weekend, in the aftermath of Tucson.
Beck opened the exchange, urging Palin to “please look into protection for your family. An attempt on you could bring the republic down.”
He then quoted from Palin’s response, saying the former Alaska governor emailed back saying, “I hate violence. I hate war. Our children will not have peace if politicos just capitalize on this to succeed in portraying anyone as inciting terror and violence. Thanks for all you do to send the message of truth and love and God as the answer.”