Conservatives are furious that the shooting of Gabrielle Giffords is being pinned on them. Their indignation is justified. The mania of Giffords's would-be assassin may be slightly more right-wing than left-wing, but, on the whole, it is largely disconnected from even loosely organized extreme right-wing politics.
The rhetorical attempts to connect Jared Loughner to mainstream politics take two forms, neither convincing. One is to condemn the use of combat metaphors in politics, such as Sarah Palin's web page superimposing gunsights upon Democratic districts targeted by the GOP. Glenn Reynolds persuasively notes that this is a well-established, bipartisan practice:
Palin critic Markos Moulitsas, on his Daily Kos blog, had even included Rep. Gabrielle Giffords's district on a list of congressional districts "bullseyed" for primary challenges. When Democrats use language like this—or even harsher language like Mr. Obama's famous remark, in Philadelphia during the 2008 campaign, "If they bring a knife to the fight, we bring a gun"—it's just evidence of high spirits, apparently.
I don't believe that analogizing politics to combat encourages anybody, even the mentally ill, to take up violence. People use metaphors like this in all aspects of daily life—sports, business, dating, and on and on.
The second form is to lump together all sorts of extremism under the broad rubric of "anger" or "hate." The New York Times news story posits "a wrenching process of soul-searching about the tone of political discourse and wondered aloud if a lack of civility had somehow contributed to the bloodshed in Tucson." NBC's Mark Murray writes, "If one word summed up the past two years in American politics, it was this: anger."
This category is far too broad. Strong feelings are a part of political discourse. This is serious business. Important things are at stake, including, at times, life and death. People have a right to get angry.
Now, I do believe there is a problem with the current political moment. Both extremes of the political spectrum can embrace apocalyptic thinking and rejection of the democratic process. The left-wing version came to the fore during the 1960s, but it is tiny and almost completely disconnected from Democratic politics. The right-wing version, on the other hand, is drawing ever more tightly into an embrace with putatively respectable Republican politics. Since the closing stages of the 2008 election, conservatives have regularly described President Obama as an alien figure and his policies a fundamental threat to American liberty. It has become normal for conservatives to hint that they will take up arms if they don't get their way politically—a violation of the cultural norm of respecting democratic outcomes that forms the basis for the stability of our political system. Sharron Angle, not just a fringe activist but the GOP's candidate in a major Senate race, rhetorically flirted with outright sedition, and Republicans paid no attention to this, because they wanted to beat Harry Reid.
This is, I think, a serious problem. But it's also a problem that has nothing, or almost nothing, to do with the tragedy in Arizona. This was not a right-wing militia member taking apocalyptic right-wing rhetoric about watering the tree of liberty too seriously. It was a random act.
I can see why those concerned about the rise of right-wing hysteria would want to use Loughner as a cautionary tale—even if he wasn't a product of right-wing rage, they may be thinking, he is an example of what right-wing rage could lead to. Yet they fail to understand that this will appear to conservatives as an attempt to use the emotion of the moment to stigmatize them. The mania of Sarah Palin and the Tea Party must be dealt with on their own terms.