Blood Libel or No, The Political Climate Is Still Poisonous

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Sarah Palin, once again, demonstrated her ability to rile both the left and right by uttering a few words from the last frontier. Now the ideological tribes will retreat to their clubhouses–Fox News, MSNBC, the political blogs–to stir themselves to outrage debating whether “blood libel,” a term historically reserved for a particularly vicious type of antisemitism, is an appropriate metaphor for the knee-jerk responses of a few liberal pundits after the Arizona shootings.

Liberals attack the viciousness of some right-wing rhetoric, while conservatives attack the viciousness of the liberal charge of guilt-by-association. Everyone puts on more tribal war paint. The ensuing noise is so deafening that the nation is once again pushed to the brink of missing the point: That we stand remarkably united against this sort of violent insanity. That the vast majority of us don’t want the killings to be turned into yet another reason to draw the us-versus-them battle lines–even though Rush Limbaugh, Keith Olbermann, Glenn Beck and others, can’t help themselves, apparently for professional reasons.

With this in mind, it is important to note that, the killer’s motivations aside, we still have a problem with the tone of our political debate. Charles Krauthammer carries the flag for his side today by pointing out that violent metaphors are neither new to political discussions, nor the exclusive utterance of adherents to one political ideology. This is true, of course. But I kept waiting for the part where he says, let’s chill out a little bit, since at some point these sort of “routine political metaphors” hurt the country, and not because they may or may not have seeped, in some indirect way, into the madness of a lost Tucson wake-dreamer.

On Tuesday, the Arizona Republic reported that the district Republican chairman for a community outside of Phoenix had resigned, because he feared for his safety after the Saturday shootings. “I wasn’t going to resign but decided to quit after what happened Saturday,” said Anthony Miller, a supporter of John McCain who had recently been elected to his post. “I love the Republican Party but I don’t want to take a bullet for anyone.”

He had just gotten through a divisive election, that included racially-tinged name calling and a moment when he saw a critic “form his hand in the shape of a gun and point it at him.”

It is not blood libel, or any kind of libel, to say that the resignation of Miller and several of his supporters is a dark stain upon our democracy. And if the violent madness of Jared Lee Loughner sparks a conversation about this problem, I don’t exactly see the downside. As Palin herself said in her videotaped speech:

America must be stronger than the evil we saw displayed last week. We are better than the mindless finger-pointing we endured in the wake of the tragedy. We will come out of this stronger and more united in our desire to peacefully engage in the great debates of our time, to respectfully embrace our differences in a positive manner, and to unite in the knowledge that, though our ideas may be different, we must all strive for a better future for our country.

If only she had stopped there.