Despite calls from all sides to depoliticize the Gabrielle Giffords shooting, there remains a robust political sideshow surrounding the event. And the elephant in that room has been Sarah Palin, who's been accused by many liberals of irresponsible political speech related to her map of targets for the 2010 midterms (see, for example, this week's cover of Seattle alt-weekly The Stranger). Except for a deeply unpersuasive argument from a spokeswoman that the targets were "surveyor's symbols," for once, Palin remained silent—so quiet that her silence had become a major topic for political reporters by Tuesday.
No more. This morning, she released a lengthy video—nearly eight minutes—responding to the tragedy and, of course, to her critics. (Here's the transcript.) Much of what she says about the shooting in the first half echoes the tones of sorrow used by others, including President Obama. Here's the key quote for her forceful rebuttal, which takes up the second half:
[W]ithin hours of a tragedy unfolding, journalists and pundits should not manufacture a blood libel that serves only to incite the very hatred and violence they purport to condemn. That is reprehensible. There are those who claim political rhetoric is to blame for the despicable act of this deranged, apparently apolitical criminal. And they claim political debate has somehow gotten more heated just recently. But when was it less heated? Back in those “calm days” when political figures literally settled their differences with dueling pistols?
What to make of the video? On the pro side, Palin had to speak out, and she approached it in a sensible way. Her statement is carefully rehearsed and solemn, avoiding flippancy. What's more, many Americans agree with her, even mainstream liberals. So far, no evidence has emerged that suggests alleged shooter Jared Loughner was inspired by the rhetoric of Palin or any other mainstream political figures. By defending herself personally, she's on solid ground. And beyond the personal, Palin attacks the idea that any political rhetoric—not just hers—is to blame, and dismisses it forcefully. Once again, she's on solid ground with the American people: a CBS poll released Tuesday found that just three in 10 Americans think political rhetoric is to blame for the shooting.
But there still seem to be three sharp downsides to her statement. First, there's Palin's remarkably jarring use of the term "blood libel" to describe criticism. The term refers to a centuries-old anti-Semitic slur suggesting that Jews used the blood of gentile children in religious rituals. Perhaps Palin wasn't aware of the meaning—it was just a striking phrase. If so, that was a mistake. If it was intentional, it's completely perplexing: why invoke something so clearly of a different scale? (The phrase has already spawned a torrid discussion of its own.)
That brings us to Palin's apparent need to be the victim. It's a tactic that works well against the mainstream media, which many people dislike, and against Democrats, whom about half the country dislike. But is it OK to do so in a case when there are very real victims—six of them dead? If anyone can get away with it, it's the very talented Palin. But I'm willing to bet it won't play well with many Americans outside the circle of her staunchest supporters. Last night, before her video's release, moderate Republican David Frum was already complaining that Palin always paints herself as the victim; now she's doubled down on it.
And she's also doubled down on heated political rhetoric—not only saying it isn't to blame but, in fact, promoting it. It's one thing to say that Americans don't believe political rhetoric is to blame for the shooting; it's another to assume that they like it. In fact, reactions over the last few days seem to suggest the opposite: that the shooting's only silver lining may be to awaken people to the insipidity of our political discourse. Palin faces the problem that strident rhetoric is her calling card and her strength, so it's hard for her to turn her back on it. (Also: it's very odd to suggest that just because our congressmen no longer die in duels, our political discourse is ideal. That's an awfully low bar to clear.)
While that rhetoric has put her on the hot seat, and is worth discussing, Palin's political calculus on the shooting is tough mostly for reasons outside her control. Still, with her victimhood play, strange word choice, and decision to go all-in on inflammatory speech, her video and statement fail to make the best of a bad situation.