There are two groups responsible for the January 8 tragedy in Tucson, Arizona. One group is made up of right-wing Republicans, Tea Party fanatics and extremist conservative talk show personalities. These people have, for too long now, been consciously creating an atmosphere in which illegal acts of intimidation and violence are mistaken for patriotism. It does not matter if members of this group are self-deceived “patriots” or just political opportunists. The nature of their actions was and is predictably disastrous. When Sarah Palin placed a map on her web site showing the whereabouts of twenty Democratic politicians – including Gabrielle Giffords – using, in Palin’s words, “bullseye icons” (that is, gun sights), she essentially committed an act of criminal incitement. Anyone with average intelligence can recognize this to be so given the preexisting combustible environment created by the near-criminal speech of people like Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter. Therefore, it is reasonable to conclude that when she released her metaphoric invitation to violence, Palin knew that among her supporters were a large number of angry white men armed to the teeth with everything from handguns to bazookas. The fact that, in the case of Tucson (which was not the first, or the last, case), it was allegedly a mentally unstable fellow who acted out the violence is irrelevant to the fact that the preexisting climate of incitement was palpable. What Palin, Beck and their kind are practicing is not free speech. It is the equivalent of, as Oliver Wendell Holmes put it, “crying fire in a crowded theater.”
However, the situation would never have gotten to its present explosive level without the complementary behavior of the second group, the country’s center/liberal establishment, including the Democratic Party leadership, all of whom have failed to treat the right-wing threat seriously. It does not matter if members of this group simply misjudged the situation or harbored the mistaken notion that to confront it would only make things worse. In either case, they were wrong. Whether we consider Al Gore’s response to the stolen presidential election of 2000 or Barack Obama’s consistent refusal to prosecute the criminal acts of the Bush-era extremists, these center/liberal leaders have behaved irresponsibly in the face of a growing and recognizably dangerous situation. They do the country no favors by confronting a violent right with passivity or sorrowful words.
It has been 153 years since Abraham Lincoln made his prescient House Divided speech in June of 1858, in Springfield, Illinois. His words, which at the time were considered alarmist, went like this: “If we could first know where we are, and whither we are tending, we could then better judge what to do, and how to do it.” Making reference to continuing “slavery agitation,” he went on: “In my opinion, it will not cease until a crisis shall have been reached and passed.” And then he told his audience (1,000 members of the original Republican Party) that, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.”
The United States is, once more, increasingly a house divided. It is not divided by “slavery agitation,” though some of the issues have their roots in that era. It is divided by fundamental differences regarding the meaning of the nation’s constitution and the very nature of government. These differences bring with them feelings that are just as emotional and inherently divisive as was slavery.
There are a growing number of Americans who no longer believe in the modern interpretation and application of the US Constitution. They insist that the way constitutional interpretation has evolved over the past half-century is a betrayal of true American principles. Many of these Americans are apparently enamored of the 19th-century outlook that the only government that is legitimate is the one that sees to the police, the military and the law. Everything else should be a private concern. If you tax these Americans for programs that have to do with social equity or economic justice (even in its pitifully weak form), or even to maintain public functions such as education, transportation and social services, they consider it theft and imagine that they are subject to a new tyranny. In addition, many of them are not willing to go along with any election that might run counter to their outlook. Some are very close to advocating sedition, and a few are obviously already gunning for their imagined “tyrants.”
The present center/liberal leadership is confused. As Lincoln put it, they do not know where they are, where they are going or what to do. Unfortunately, unlike Lincoln, they are not prescient. They do not seem to understand that what is happening is not superficial or transient. They beg us not to “politicize” the Tucson massacre, as if the murders were not prima facie political acts. Lincoln knew that the house was dividing and that the process would “not cease until a crisis shall have been reached and passed.” Our center/liberal establishment has yet to come to a similar understanding.
Passivity and accommodation will not make right-wing violence go away. Those who incite this violence, as well as those who act it out, have to be confronted in an aggressive yet principled fashion. One way to do this is to enforce the law in a way that prioritizes our problems in a common-sense fashion and ceases to practice double standards. In other words, it is time for President Obama to tell his justice department and the FBI to stop chasing around the Midwest harassing people friendly to the Palestinians and start going after that element of the American right that is inciting its members to act out their political rage. They can begin by taking a look at the activities of one Sarah Palin.