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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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Let’s momentarily set aside the calumny in that paragraph and deal with the confusion. Packer writes that the “tragedy” doesn’t change the “basic fact” that conservatives have tried to delegitimize their opponents. He’s right, in a very limited way. The tragedy in Tucson doesn’t change his “basic fact,” because if Loughner was not motivated by politics the tragedy has very little to do with his “basic fact.”

And what of his claim that conservatives “routinely” speak of opponents as traitorous and treasonous rather than merely “soft on defense?” If such rhetoric is so common, one might have thought Packer could produce an example of a prominent conservative doing this.

He goes on to claim: “This relentlessly hostile rhetoric has become standard issue on the right. (On the left it appears in anonymous comment threads, not congressional speeches and national T.V. programs.)”

Really? Senator Dick Durbin compared U.S. soldiers to Nazis and defended his comments for days before eventually apologizing. Last month, Senator Robert Menendez compared discussions with Republicans on the tax compromise to negotiations with “terrorists.” Representative Alan Grayson claimed that Republicans want old people to die. Later, he ran a campaign ad comparing his opponent to the Taliban. And during the 2008 presidential campaign, President Obama, speaking in Philadelphia, said of Republicans: “If they bring a knife to the fight, we bring a gun.”

The point here is not to suggest that Democrats do this more than Republicans, or that liberals do it more than conservatives. Who cares? Let’s stipulate that fringe elements on both sides do this and that some of the rhetoric is irresponsible.

The question is whether in this specific case such rhetoric played a role. The facts may change, but at this point the answer is no.

But Packer isn’t building his argument so much as laying two separate points next to one another. The result, of course, is to create an impression that the two are related even when the facts don’t support such a conclusion.

Packer seems to understand this, but it doesn’t keep him from making the association. He concludes his piece: “The massacre in Tucson is, in a sense, irrelevant to the important point. Whatever drove Jared Lee Loughner, America's political frequencies are full of violent static.”

Similar “logic” flowed from virtually every mainstream news outlet throughout the weekend.

The lead piece from Politico included this passage: “By day’s end, the argument that the political right—fueled by anti-government, and anti-immigrant passions that run especially strong in Arizona—is culpable for the Tucson massacre, even if by indirect association, seemed to be validated by the top local law enforcement official investigating the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D).”

Validated how? Did this official provide evidence that Loughner was fueled by anti-government and anti-immigrant passions that run especially strong in Arizona? The article quotes him.

When you look at unbalanced people, how they respond to the vitriol that comes out of certain mouths about tearing down the government—the anger, the hatred, the bigotry that goes on in this country is getting to be outrageous,” said Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik, an elected Democrat, at a news conference Saturday evening. “And unfortunately, Arizona, I think, has become the capital. We have become the mecca for prejudice and bigotry.

Unsubstantiated accusations from an authority figure do not “validate” the irresponsible claims of conservative culpability; they merely echo them. Unless he has seen evidence he is not sharing with the public, Dupnik was little more than Markos Moulitsas with a badge.

We will certainly learn more about Jared Lee Loughner. And it’s possible, perhaps likely, that some more coherent political ideology will emerge. But until it does, journalists would do well to stick to the facts available to them.

Sometimes a crazy guy is just a crazy guy. And sometimes a tragedy is just a tragedy. 

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