Initially, there seemed to be some hope of reflection in the face of Saturday’s horror, which left six people dead and Democratic Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords grievously wounded with a bullet through her brain.

A map showing crosshairs on Giffords’s and 19 other Democratic congressional districts was pulled from a Web site of ex-Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, who also issued a statement of condolences to the families of the dead and the wounded. But Palin stopped short of accepting any blame for stoking the fiery rhetoric which has fed the anger and incipient violence that now envelop U.S. politics.

By Monday, however, Palin was seeing herself as one of the Tucson victims. She sent an e-mail to Glenn Beck, another right-winger who has profited from over-the-top rhetoric. He read her message on his radio show, quoting Palin as saying: “Our children will not have peace if politicos just capitalize on this to succeed in portraying anyone as inciting terror and violence.”

On Wednesday , Palin went further, stating: "After this shocking tragedy, I listened at first puzzled, then with concern, and now with sadness, to the irresponsible statements from people attempting to apportion blame for this terrible event."

She left little doubt that she was sliding into the favored position of the Right whenever its actions come under criticism: victimhood. [For details on this pattern, see Consortiumnews.com’s “The Right’s Dangerous ‘Victimhood.’”]

Palin’s new statement showed no remorse for the wild accusations that she has tossed around since she stepped onto the national political stage in 2008 as John McCain’s surprise choice to be his vice presidential running mate.

Back then, she behaved like a reckless child with matches, either not comprehending the effect of her incendiary words or not caring. For instance, she blithely accused Barack Obama of “palling around with terrorists,” a false charge that riled up the Republican base and confronted the Secret Service with a rash of death threats against the black presidential candidate.

After Obama was elected president, Palin kept up her outrageous rhetoric, accusing him of planning “death panels” for elderly and impaired Americans, including possibly her youngest son who has Down’s Syndrome. She also has made a habit of using gun metaphors to rally her followers, such as telling them “don’t retreat, reload” – after the health-care law passed.

In her Wednesday statement, Palin still did not seem willing to reflect on the harm that violent rhetoric can inflict on a democratic society, especially one like the United States where prominent leaders have been struck down by assassins. Instead, she defended her verbal assaults as something of a civic duty, even as she condemned any criticism of herself.

"Vigorous and spirited public debates during elections are among our most cherished traditions,” Palin said, denouncing “media and pundits” who "should not manufacture a blood libel that serves only to incite the hatred and violence that they purport to condemn. That is reprehensible."

Clearly, any moment for possible self-reflection had passed. The national concern over violent rhetoric had just become another opportunity for the Right to rile up its base.

A Troubling Pattern

While it’s true that some Democrats and elements of the Left have engaged in irresponsible rhetoric in recent decades too, the fact is that the Right and the Republicans – at least since the emergence of Newt Gingrich in the late 1970s – have led the way in ratcheting up political anger as a conscious technique to demonize “lib-rhuls” and other partisan enemies.

Aided by a powerhouse right-wing media – and propaganda experts who give advice on the most inflammatory word choices – Gingrich’s strategy succeeded. Republicans have held the White House for 20 of the past 30 years and – under Gingrich’s guidance – drove the Democrats into congressional minorities by the mid-1990s.

The demonizing of “lib-rhul” Americans also has not been just the work of a few crazies on the far-right fringe. It has been a deliberate tactic undertaken by prominent Republicans who systematically have challenged the patriotism of their fellow Americans.

In 1984, Ronald Reagan’s UN Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick famously accused those who dared criticize U.S. foreign policy of “blaming America first.” In 1988, George H.W. Bush made a point of campaigning in a flag factory to question Democrat Michael Dukakis’s love of the flag. In 1992, President Bush spread smears about Bill Clinton for taking a student trip to Moscow.

Under George W. Bush, it became common fare in the Right’s ubiquitous media to accuse Democrats and “lib-rhuls” of sympathizing with terrorists or aiding the enemy. From smears of former U.S. Ambassador Joe Wilson to death threats against the Dixie Chicks, there was an anything-goes hostility toward any American who refused to bow down to Bush.

This ugliness set the stage for Palin’s arrival on the scene in 2008. She injected into the presidential campaign the conspiracy theory that Obama had some operational connection to 1960s radical William Ayers. Palin didn’t seem to know or care that her false accusations could have consequences.

Indeed, Palin appeared so submerged in the angry counter-culture of the Right that she acted as if this sort of language was normal. And, it was true that the Right had so consistently employed hate speech by then that it sounded like just part of the political landscape, nothing special.

On the rare occasions when the mainstream media did take note of these everyday right-wing excesses, the journalists would always try to balance the point by searching out some similar, though usually much more isolated, offense on the Left.

In some ways, this false equivalence made matters worse. It enabled the Right to get away with a routine of outrageous rhetoric while only sharing the blame about equally with the Left. Noting this imbalance, some on the Left saw little reason to behave responsibly themselves.

Blame in Tucson

Though it’s obvious that the alleged shooter in the Tucson massacre, Jared L. Loughner, is a deeply disturbed young man, the point about tamping down violent rhetoric in politics is to avoid setting off people like Loughner, who already harbor mental imbalances.

In that sense, both the Right and the Left (along with the Center, which contributes to the problem by often putting career opportunism ahead of responsibly examining difficult issues) might all want to take this sad moment to rethink their behavior.

The Right could pull back from the wild-eyed Tea Party rhetoric, like denouncing a private-sector-based health-care reform, aimed at allowing 32 million more Americans to afford health insurance, as a “socialist” assault on American freedoms deserving of “Second Amendment remedies.”

The Left might stop tolerating evidence-deficient conspiracy theories like the 9/11 “truth” claims, which appear to have been a factor in whatever thinking was going on inside Loughner’s brain. He’s reported to have been a fan of “Loose Change” and “Zeitgeist,” two “documentaries” that push the “inside-job” theories about the attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon.

The fact that there is no evidence to support this 9/11 conspiracy theory – not a single witness to the supposed “inside job,” nor a single document, has emerged in nearly a decade – has not stopped the “truthers” from pushing their allegations, nor some on the Left from giving the “truthers” a pass because they target George W. Bush, who after all lied to the public regarding the Iraq War.

The Center, too, should do some reflecting. A key reason for the deep public distrust of government is that mainstream politicians and centrist news outlets have failed to seriously investigate sensitive issues, thus spreading skepticism about whatever the government says.

For instance, the mainstream U.S. news media has performed poorly at least since the days of Watergate, the Pentagon Papers and CIA abuses in the 1970s. As I witnessed first-hand in the 1980s, Washington journalists began to tend more to their careers than to the public’s right to know.

Major examples of government wrongdoing – such as the Iran-Contra Affair, Contra-cocaine trafficking, Iraq-gate and the October Surprise case – were downplayed, ignored or even dismissed as real scandals, all the better for news personalities to avoid unpleasant controversies and to burnish their mainstream credentials.

Congressional and other government investigations also fell short, as it became clear to Washington insiders that the best way to earn the title “wise man” – and to keep a spot on the political gravy train – was to whitewash crimes that reflected badly on the Establishment.

Then, there came George W. Bush’s Iraq War, justified by false claims about WMD that went largely unchallenged by both the U.S. intelligence community and the major U.S. news media. Bush even carried out war crimes, such as torture of “war on terror” detainees, and got away with rationalizing his actions with the most transparent sophistry.

Bush’s anti-regulatory policies also enabled Wall Street’s plundering of the U.S. economy, through reckless gambling that required a taxpayer bailout even as millions of taxpayers lost their jobs and their homes. Again, there was the centrist expectation that none of the high-flying culprits should be judged guilty of anything even as average Americans suffered.

It was not so much that the Center no longer held as that the Center no longer had any credibility with large segments of the population. Mainstream institutions were viewed as self-serving, if not thoroughly corrupt.

This national crisis of confidence has left many Americans unsure what to believe and vulnerable to various forms of demagoguery.

A first step in addressing this problem would be for the players on all sides to finally start acting like responsible adults. The tragedy in Tucson is a painful warning about what the consequences will look like if the present dynamic doesn’t change.

[For more on these topics, see Robert Parry’s Lost History and Secrecy & Privilege, which are now available with Neck Deep, in a three-book set for the discount price of only $29. For details, click here.]

Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush, was written with two of his sons, Sam and Nat, and can be ordered at neckdeepbook.com. His two previous books, Secrecy & Privilege: The Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq and Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth' are also available there.  

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