I hate to say this, but the blame game is already under way.
It began within hours of Saturday's horrifying shooting of Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and nearly 20 others, even before the gunman was identified.
One of the first to be dragged into this sickening ritual of guilt by association: Sarah Palin. Last March, the former Alaska governor posted a map on her Facebook page with crosshair targets representing 20 Democratic lawmakers she was singling out for defeat after they voted for President Obama's health care plan. One of them was Giffords. Palin, who touts her caribou-hunting heritage, also tweeted, "Don't retreat, RELOAD!"
This kind of rhetoric is highly unfortunate. The use of the crosshairs was dumb. But it's a long stretch from such excessive language and symbols to holding a public official accountable for a murderer who opens fire on a political gathering and kills a half-dozen people, including a 9-year-old girl.
On her Facebook page, Palin offered her "sincere condolences" to Giffords and the others who were shot, saying that "on behalf of Todd and my family, we all pray for the victims and their families, and for peace and justice."
This isn't about a nearly year-old Sarah Palin map; it's about a lone nutjob who doesn't value human life.
Liberals were quick to denounce Palin at the time of the map posting. And after Giffords' Tucson office was vandalized that same month, the Democratic congresswoman told MSNBC, "We're on Sarah Palin's targeted list. But the thing is, the way she has it depicted it has the crosshairs of a gun sight over our district. And when people do that, they've got to realize there are consequences to that action."
Giffords had every right to ask Palin and others to tone it down. But is it now fair for the rest of us to tie Palin to the accused gunman, Jared Lee Loughner?
Let's be honest: Journalists often use military terminology in describing campaigns. We talk about the air war, the bombshells, targeting politicians, knocking them off, candidates returning fire or being out of ammunition. So we shouldn't act shocked when politicians do the same thing. Obviously, Palin should have used dots or asterisks on her map. But does anyone seriously believe she was trying to incite violence?
Palin seemed to pull back in a subsequent campaign appearance for her former running mate, John McCain. "We know violence isn't the answer," she said. "When we take up our arms, we're talking about our vote."
But she also mocked the criticism as politically correct, using her Facebook platform to apply the same language to basketball's Final Four: "To the teams that desire making it this far next year: Gear up! In the battle, set your sights on next season's targets! From the shot across the bow—the first second's tip-off—your leaders will be in the enemy's crosshairs, so you must execute strong defensive tactics."
A fellow Arizona Democrat, Rep. Raul Grijalva, said that the Palin “apparatus” shares responsibility for creating a climate of extremism. "Both Gabby and I were targeted in the apparatus in that cycle [saying] these people are 'enemies,’” Grivjalva told Mother Jones’s David Corn. He added: “The Palin express better look at their tone and their tenor.”
And MSNBC's Keith Olbermann made the link even more explicit on Saturday night: "If Sarah Palin, whose website put and today scrubbed bullseye targets on 20 representatives including Gabby Giffords, does not repudiate her own part in amplifying violence and violent imagery in politics, she must be dismissed from politics."
Of course, some rhetoric is deliberately incendiary. U.S. District Judge John Roll, one of those shot and killed in Tucson, had ruled in 2009 that a lawsuit by illegal immigrants against an Arizona rancher could go forward. Afterward, U.S. Marshal David Gonzales said that talk radio shows fanned the flames and prompted hundreds of calls to the judge, some of them threatening. "They said, 'We should kill him. He should be dead,'" Gonzales told the Arizona Republic.
The act of transforming tragedy into political fodder has deep roots in American history. After the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, President Bill Clinton attacked "the purveyors of hatred and division" for "reckless speech," saying the nation's airwaves were too often used "to keep some people as paranoid as possible and the rest of us all torn up and upset with each other. They spread hate, they leave the impression that, by their very words, that violence is acceptable."
Rush Limbaugh, who had tangled with Clinton, responded that "liberals intend to use this tragedy for their own political gain." He blamed "many in the mainstream media" for "irresponsible attempts to categorize and demonize those who had nothing to do with this."
When George Tiller was murdered at a Kansas church in 2009, liberal critics savaged Bill O'Reilly for having attacked the abortion doctor more than two dozen times, labeling him "Tiller the Baby Killer." The Fox News host called the criticism "nonsense," saying "evidence shows that Tiller was a gross human rights violator. Yet, because most media people are pro-choice, they looked away. Now they are trying to justify their apathy by attacking us."
Last summer, after an unemployed carpenter named Byron Williams shot and injured two California police officers, we learned that he had told investigators that he wanted "to start a revolution" by "killing people of importance at the Tides Foundation and the ACLU." Some commentators blamed Glenn Beck, who had repeatedly attacked the obscure foundation, which calls for economic justice—especially after Williams's mother told the San Francisco Chronicle that the ex-felon watched television news and was upset by "the way Congress was railroading through all these left-wing agenda items."
And here we go again in Arizona, as people with political agendas unleash their attacks even before the victims of this senseless shooting have been buried. I find it depressing beyond belief.
This isn't about a nearly year-old Sarah Palin map; it's about a lone nutjob who doesn't value human life. It would be nice if we briefly put aside partisan differences and came together with sympathy and support for Gabby Giffords and the other victims, rather than opening rhetorical fire ourselves.
Howard Kurtz is The Daily Beast's Washington bureau chief. He also hosts CNN's weekly media program Reliable Sources on Sundays at 11 a.m. ET. The longtime media reporter and columnist for The Washington Post, Kurtz is the author of five books.