When Sarah Palin’s new video message regarding the controversy surrounding the assassination attempt of Democratic congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was released today, I couldn’t help but think of Osama Bin Laden. Some will no doubt be tempted to stop reading right here, and dismiss this as the rant of some partisan lefty. A lefty I am, and I make no bones about it, but hear me out. Bin Laden doesn’t just release one of his cave messages to the West following a terrorist attack for which he’s responsible; he often chimes in after any notable calamity, claiming tacit responsibility or pointing a figure at the consequences of American imperialism.
To be clear: I am not suggesting that Sarah Palin is a terrorist. I personally don’t ascribe responsibility for what happened in Tucson, Arizona last weekend to Palin—at least directly. There’s no evidence to suggest that the alleged shooter, Jared Loughner, had a coherent political ideology, let alone ever saw Palin’s “target list,” on which Giffords’s district was depicted in crosshairs. But like Bin Laden, Palin exists in a vacuum, avoiding both reality and real media interaction, occasionally appearing on FOX News via satellite from her own cave, err, studio above her garage in Alaska and communicating in slogans, soundbites, and 140-character messages via Twitter and Facebook. Using social media is undoubtedly a savvy, immediate, and hands-on method of getting one’s message across, but Palin doesn’t seem interested in engaging her supporters or critics in any meaningful way. She’s an isolated political figure, communicating her ideas, if not her orders, from some faraway headquarters, almost as if she’d prefer that others do her bidding for her.
Andrew Sullivan likened Palin’s video speech to “a rallying cry.” A more conspiratorial, cynical person than myself, someone who believes that Palin is in this for anything other than money, might agree, and read into her use of the word “blood” and the way she emphasized how the “citizens” that were killed were “innocent victims” the same way a rebel fighter might lament collateral damage. But Palin’s latest video missive is unsettling in several other ways. Rather than admit that using violent metaphors during a political campaign was, perhaps, not her greatest moment and, in this case, a deeply regrettable coincidence, and take an opportunity to actually lead by calling for the rhetoric to be toned down (on “both sides,” as is the current tack of politicians and mainstream media figures these last few days, despite there being absolutely no evidence of rhetorical parity), she’s attempting to further divide the country even as she claims that her critics are doing the same.
Palin’s denial of her own contribution to the current political discourse, defending it by ridiculously invoking the political duels of centuries past, is dumbfounding. “When we take up our arms, we’re talking about our vote,” she said, repeating part of a campaign speech from last year. It’s a rational statement in and of itself, and I like a good metaphor, but again, Palin exists in a vacuum. She talks of the “peaceful exchange of power,” but the manner in which she and others have attempted to rally their supporters is falling on the ears of those who have clearly forgotten that they live in a representative democracy, where change is affected by ballots, not bullets. That Loughner may not have been one of those people, that he is “apolitical” and “deranged,” or that the violent rhetoric is simply that—rhetoric—is a hollow argument. How does Palin reconcile her claim that her actions have no impact when people are showing up at rallies with guns, with posters that literally call for blood?
But Palin and others on the right remain resolute in their unwillingness to admit their mistakes. And to act as if the incitement of violence hasn’t already had a direct effect is tantamount to burying one’s head in the sand. After health care reform passed in the House last year, Giffords’s office was the target of vandalism, one in a series of directly connected incidents that occurred in opposition to the bill, including a propane tank gas line being cut at the house of the brother of a Virginia congressman after right-wing activists published his address online, believing it was the representative’s home. The question isn’t whether or not political violence can be directly connected to right-wing provocation; the question is how much further will it go?
Sarah Palin is not a terrorist, but she certainly “palls around” with them. During the 2010 elections, she endorsed failed Senate candidate Sharron Angle, who not only used violent rhetoric regarding her opponent, majority leader Harry Reid, but took it one step further by declaring that her supporters were prepared to use “second amendment remedies” if she didn’t win the election. Right-wing anti-abortion extremists routinely vandalize women’s health clinics and post the home addresses of abortion doctors and nurses. These same tactics—which have led to the assassinations of eight doctors and clinic employees since 1993, including Dr. George Tiller—are now being used as a broader political strategy by the right. If it continues, the ends might tragically be the same too.