It didn't take long after one of Jared Loughner's bullets passed through the head of Arizona congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords on Saturday for the Internet to recall that infamous Sarah Palin map from September, the one in which gun sights marked the districts of Democrats she hoped to remove from office in the November elections. The violent imagery created an outcry at the time, and even Giffords herself remarked on MSNBC, "We’re on Sarah Palin’s ‘targeted’ list, but the thing is, the way she has it depicted, we’re in the crosshairs of a gun sight over our district. When people do that, they’ve gotta realize that there are consequences to that action." The political environment was getting a little too intense, and the concern was that an angry, impressionable Palin loyalist could take her graphic as well as her call to not retreat but to "reload" all too literally. When a nut tried to assassinate Giffords over the weekend, the connection was inevitable.
But also, it turns out, premature. Loughner appears to have held a grudge with Giffords for three years, according to friends, ever since she failed to satisfactorily answer a question he posed to her about the meaning of words one of his obsessions at an earlier event. Nothing in his bizarre YouTube videos or conversations with friends indicate that he was a follower of Sarah Palin or the tea party movement. In fact, it seems Loughner wasn't motivated by politics at all, but by his own set of crazed, paranoid beliefs about language, reality, and government mind control. That someone like him would be influenced by a leading politician in the Republican Party seems unlikely.
That doesn't mean Palin's use of gun sights is any less inappropriate, something her camp has clearly begun to realize. The only response from Palin's team so far to accusations of culpability came from Palin aide Rebecca Mansour on the Tammy Bruce radio show yesterday:
"We have nothing whatsoever to do with this," Palin aide Rebecca Mansour told the talk radio host Tammy Bruce in an interview. "We never ever, ever intended it to be gun sights. It was simply cross-hairs like you'd see on maps," she said, suggesting that it is a "surveyor's symbol."
That doesn't sound entirely plausible. If they were "surveyor's symbols," Palin would have said so during the initial uproar over the map. In fact, she referred to them as "bullseye" icons in a tweet after the election.
This is a delicate moment for Palin, but trotting out dubious alternate-histories does not make for a convincing defense. She'd be better served by noting that violent rhetoric and symbolism have been a pervasive part of American politics for as long as there has been an America. Like all others who have utilized it such as President Obama, for example she did so only figuratively. And there is no evidence whatsoever to support the wild speculation that she provided motivation to Loughner. But, she should note, she recognizes that the current political climate has become too heated, and she, along with everyone else, must make a concerted effort to cool the discourse. American democracy should be based on peaceful disagreement, and she'll take the lead in ensuring that it is. Thank you, Facebook, and may God bless Gabby Giffords.