Don't Blame the Gabrielle Giffords Attack on Overheated Rhetoric

As now seems abundantly clear, Jared Loughner was not on anyone’s “team.”

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A lunatic opens fire in public, and even before the cable-news air-fillers do their thing, a sort of involuntary political reflex occurs. The right worries: “I hope he wasn’t one of ours.” And the left chomps: “I bet he was one of theirs.”

As now seems abundantly clear, Jared Loughner, the alleged shooter, was not on anyone’s “team.”

Aside from revealing conservatives’ newfound oversensitivity and defensiveness, as well as liberals’ sometimes astonishing capacity for presuming in bad faith, the political fallout from the atrocity in Arizona is symptomatic of one thing: People who think about politics think about politics too much—and assume everyone else thinks about politics as much as they do. [Photo Gallery: Gabrielle Giffords Shooting in Arizona.]

Cable news and talk radio are no more responsible for today’s polarized political landscape than the media was responsible for the McKinley assassination, the Kennedy assassination, the other Kennedy assassination, the King assassination, the Chicago Democratic Convention riots, or the Reagan assassination attempt.

If anything, partisan media are a symptom rather than the cause of polarization. Indeed, the unrest of the 1960s happened on the watch of the then-dominant mainstream media complex—the very model to which many our hate-talk watchdogs would like us to return.

The fact is, politically-motivated violence is extraordinarily rare in this country, and the worst case of it—the Civil War—occurred before the invention of the incandescent light bulb.

What today’s political entertainment media have done, I would argue, is give its consumers an overriding sense that even ordinary people think about politics all day—and, most important of all, that they’re “angry.” [Take the poll: Is Political Rhetoric To Blame for Arizona Shooting?]

Yet think about this: There are three general-interest 24-hour news networks (Fox News, CNN, and MSNBC). There are an equal number of reality shows about dancing (Dancing with the Stars, So You Think You Can Dance, Live to Dance). The new iteration of Hawaii Five-O fetches more viewers than Fox News, CNN, and MSNBC combined.

I’ve heard the arguments that, sure, hardcore political news consumers are a relatively tiny subculture—but it’s precisely the outliers in such a subculture who potentially threaten the rest of us.

But if we’re going to blame Jared Loughner’s apparent rampage on overheated political rhetoric, then we also need to rein in our passion about sports. Consider, for example, this moving Washington Post account of a senseless beating that was sparked by the cry of “Phillies suck!”

And, while we’re at it, we could blame Martin Scorsese and Jodie Foster for “inspiring” the would-be Reagan assassin John Hinckley.

  • See photos of the Gabrielle Giffords Shooting in Arizona.
  • Take the poll: Is Political Rhetoric To Blame for Arizona Shooting?
  • Follow the money in Congress.