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Sometimes A Tragedy Is Just A Tragedy

The media try--and fail--to make sense of the Tucson massacre.

12:00 AM, Jan 10, 2011 • By STEPHEN F. HAYES
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Even before anything at all was known about Jared Lee Loughner, who went on a deadly shooting spree outside a Safeway in Tucson, Arizona, on Saturday, a narrative was beginning to take shape.

Sometimes A Tragedy Is Just A Tragedy

Partisans on the left immediately blamed the Tea Party, Sarah Palin, “talk radio,” and Republicans more generally. That’s regrettable but probably inevitable. Agitators like Markos Moulitsas, whose Twitter feed on Saturday is full of such charges, make fact-free accusations as a matter of course. So he wrote: “Fucking American Taliban” and “Mission Accomplished, Sarah Palin.” He wasn’t alone. Paul Krugman blamed talk radio for a “climate of hate” and Keith Olbermann blamed Sarah Palin and others.

The mainstream media has operated with the same assumptions. And so despite the lack of evidence that Loughner had political motivations, journalists have wondered aloud whether – or to what extent – “political rhetoric” on the right is to blame.

One of the most important things journalists can do is to provide context for major events, to take a seemingly disparate set of facts and explain their meaning in a way that allows readers, viewers and listeners to understand better what has happened and perhaps even why. Providing such a framework is usually helpful. But not always. Sometimes you cannot make sense of the senseless.

In their attempts to provide such context many journalists – at prominent newspapers and magazines, at the networks, and on cable – are doing more to obscure the truth than to reveal it.

The resulting stories are often incoherent with reporters and commentators acknowledging that Loughner did not appear to have been driven primarily by politics but nonetheless offering vague indictments of political rhetoric on the right. So rather than actual reporting we have lots of “simmering” and “swirling” in “a climate of hatred and fear” or “today’s inflamed political environment.”

The New York Times reported: “While the exact motivations of the suspect in the shootings remained unclear, an Internet site tied to the man, Jared Lee Loughner, contained antigovernment ramblings. And regardless of what led to the episode, it quickly focused attention on the degree to which inflammatory language, threats and implicit instigations to violence have become a steady undercurrent in the nation’s political culture.” 

And after quoting a denunciation of the shooting by a Tea Party leader, the Times noted, “others said it was hard to separate what had happened from the heated nature of the debate that has swirled around Mr. Obama and Democratic policies of the past two years.”

As a consequence, Republicans spent the day after the shooting responding to requests from print reporters and Sunday talk-show hosts to defend “Tea Party rhetoric” and to explain the culture of violence it has allegedly produced.

George Packer, writing in the New Yorker, provides an example:

Judging from his Internet postings, Jared Lee Loughner is a delusional young man whose inner political landscape is a swamp of dystopian novels, left- and right-wing tracts, conspiracy theories, and contempt for his fellow human beings. He refers to the gold and silver standard; that doesn't make Ron Paul responsible for the shootings. He is fond of “Animal Farm”; George Orwell didn't guide the hand that pulled the automatic pistol's trigger. Marx and Hitler produced a lot of corpses, but not the ones in Tucson.

Packer, though, is determined to use the incident to criticize conservatives.

But even so, the tragedy wouldn't change this basic fact: for the past two years, many conservative leaders, activists, and media figures have made a habit of trying to delegitimize their political opponents. Not just arguing against their opponents, but doing everything possible to turn them into enemies of the country and cast them out beyond the pale. Instead of “soft on defense,” one routinely hears the words “treason” and “traitor.” The President isn't a big-government liberal—he's a socialist who wants to impose tyranny. He's also, according to a minority of Republicans, including elected officials, an impostor.

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