No. At least not more than the individual who hopes that someone they do not like gets hit by a bus, only to have that happen. What Sarah Palin can be blamed for is her callousness and inability to admit wrongdoing in the wake of an act that, given the trajectory of extremist rhetoric that has scarred political discourse, was sadly inevitable.
Back in March Palin put up a map of Congressional districts held by Democrats that she wanted to be overtaken by Republicans in the midterm election. She chose the unfortunate imagery of gunsights to point out the districts. At the time she was heavily criticized at the time for this move by many (including me). She did not back down, instead Tweeting after the health care vote, "Commonsense Conservatives & lovers of America: "Don't Retreat, Instead - RELOAD!" Pls see my Facebook page." Luckily for those uninjured in the recent shooting of Representative Gabrielle Giffords, alleged shooter Jared L. Loughner was tackled before reloading a second clip of his Glock.
The excuse being paraded around Palin headquarters as of late–that the sights over Giffords' and others' Congressional districts were surveyor's sights, not gun sights–is insultingly weak. Palin's a well-documented gun enthusiast. Her passion for Abraham Lincoln's pre-presidential occupation? Not so much. Her camp's insistence that the sights are simply surveyor symbols is akin to Matt Hale claiming that his use of a swastika refers to the ancient Buddhist symbol, not the Third Reich.
But the most chilling thing about Palin's gun sight map is that Representative Giffords herself commented on it back in March while talking to MSNBC. In that interview she said, "We're on Sarah Palin's targeted list, but, the thing is, the way that she has it depicted is she has the crosshairs of a gun sight over our district. When people do that they've got to realize that there are consequences to that action."
Let's repeat for reptition's sake: Sarah Palin is not to blame for inspiring Jared Loughner to try to kill Representative Giffords. Has Palin contributed to a political landscape that has become increasingly hyperbolic and extreme? Yes. Has she inappropriately used violent gun imagery? Yup. Has she unapologetically defended her use of this imagery, even in spite of the Giffords shooting? Without a doubt. It's for these reasons that Palin deserves scrutiny and should be ashamed of herself.
Take the hit-by-a-bus example I started this post with. If Tom wishes Bill to get hit by a bus, and Bill does, Tom will probably feel pretty bad. If Tom publicly states this wish for Bill to get hit by a bus to all of his friends and anyone else who will listen, and then Bill does get hit by a bus, what are those people going to think of Tom? Obviously Tom didn't make Bill get hit by a bus, but the simple expression of it is inappropriate and made more so by Bill's accident. Same with Palin. You want to put gun sights over Giffords district, and then tell people to not retreat but reload, and it happens that Giffords gets shot? You better be able to put your tail between your legs and admit you were wrong and petty and immature, not insult our intelligence by telling us you didn't mean what you really meant.
Ross Douthat had an excellent column in the New York Times yesterday about the tragedy. He points out previous homicidal shooters (Lee Harvey Oswald, Arthur Bremer) and notes that they were not necessarily motivated by politics. Instead they were mentally ill, grasped by some delusion that led them to kill (or attempt to kill). With the reports of Loughner coming out, it seems that in all likelihood he will join these famous assassinators–not motivated by politics specifically, but more by an unknown mental phantasm. Douthat has one portion of his column that struck me:
When our politicians and media loudmouths act like fools and zealots, they should be held responsible for being fools and zealots. They shouldn’t be held responsible for the darkness that always waits to swallow up the unstable and the lost.I agree that politicians should not be held responsible for "the darkness" that Douthat alludes to. This darkness has always existed and will always exist no matter what politicians do. But what happens when politicians and others contribute to this darkness? What kind of responsibility should they shoulder?
Photo - 2009 Sarah Palin calendar (Wall Street Journal)