Why Sarah Palin Should Have Just Left the 'Blood Libel' Alone

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Sarah Palin may or may not be the victim of unwarranted criticism in the wake of Jared Lee Loughner's shooting spree in Tucson last Saturday. As far as I'm concerned, that is a non-justiciable "political question"-- as federal judges get to say -- and one that I will gladly leave to the legions of inspired commentators who have been gnawing on that particular bone for the past few days.

But whatever Palin is, or is not, neither she (nor anyone else) is the victim here of a "blood libel," as she claimed Wednesday in responding to the tragedy in Arizona and the way she perceives it was handled by the media. Palin said:

Vigorous and spirited public debates during elections are among our most cherished traditions. And after the election, we shake hands and get back to work, and often both sides find common ground back in D.C. and elsewhere. If you don't like a person's vision for the country, you're free to debate that vision. If you don't like their ideas, you're free to propose better ideas. But, especially within hours of a tragedy unfolding, journalists and pundits should not manufacture a blood libel that serves only to incite the very hatred and violence they purport to condemn. That is reprehensible.

This is how Encyclopedia Judaica describes and explains the hateful and deadly history of the "blood libel": 

BLOOD LIBEL, the allegation that Jews murder non-Jews, especially Christian children, in order to obtain blood for the Passover or other rituals: most blood libels occurred close to Passover, being basically a another form of the belief that Jews had been and still were responsible for the passion and crucifixion of Jesus Christ, the divine child; a complex of deliberate lies, trumped-up accusations, and popular beliefs about the murder-lust of the Jews and their bloodthirstiness, based on the conception that Jews hate Christianity and mankind in general. It is combined with the delusion that Jews are in some way not human and must have recourse to special remedies and subterfuges to appear, at least outwardly, like other men. The blood libel led to trials and massacres of Jews in the Middle Ages and early modern times; it was revived by the Nazis. Its origin is rooted in ancient, almost primordial, concepts concerning the potency and energies of blood. In the early 2000s a controversy among scholars surrounded the argument that the blood libel began in the Middle Ages in the wake of the sacrifice of Jewish children by their parents during Crusaders raids on Jewish communities on their way to the Holy Land.

If Palin did not know what a "blood libel" means she should not have included the phrase in her remarks. And if she did understand its dark significance she should not have included the phrase in her remarks. Either way, It was inappropriate and insensitive. Even if Palin's point about media coverage is valid, and surely in some cases it is, it is not a "blood libel" to wrongly accuse someone of fomenting violence or to unfairly blame someone for inciting the violent acts of another. Nor is it a viable defense to a politician's sloppy use of the phrase that others -- on the left or on the right -- have loosely used the phrase before or that most Americans don't understand its tragic import anyway. Two or more wrongs don't make a right, right?

Trust me, I know. I have loosely used the phrase before, at least once, and I cannot even claim as a defense any ignorance of its terrible meaning. In 2005, I used it to describe the work of Ward Churchill, the professor who once called the victims of the World Trade Center attack "Little Eichmanns" and complicit in their own deaths. At the time, I wrote:

University of Colorado Professor Ward Churchill still doesn't get it. Even though he has tried to clarify and backtrack upon the worst of his intemperate remarks about the victims of the terror attacks on America, he persists in hanging a blood libel on thousands of victims and, by clear implication, you and me.

I thought it was disgraceful that Churchill blamed the victims of 9/11 for the deadly work of the hijackers. I still do. In retrospect, however, I should have been more judicious with my choice of words -- and I have tried to do better since. For 800 years or so, the "blood libel' has been loaded with great power -- all of it bad, much of it deadly, most of it based upon prejudice and bigotry, fear and ignorance. That is just one reason why there was no call for Palin, a national politician with a penchant for hyperbole to begin with, to have used it to describe her perceived level of victimhood as a result of media coverage following the Tucson murders. For someone with presidential aspirations, especially, Palin should have been more judicious with her words, too, a point now being made with force all over the country.

But I am not writing this to compare or contrast my overblown use of the phrase in 2005 with Palin's overwrought use of it now. I am no Sarah Palin and, anyway, neither one of us committed a crime or ruined the Republic by our choice of words. Instead, I am writing on this topic because, on Wednesday morning, upon reading Palin's speech, I Tweeted this: "Blood libel? Really? Does Sarah Palin really know what "blood libel" means, where it came from, and how many people died as a result of it?" I wrote the Tweet without sarcasm or anger, wondering aloud whether Palin (who as a vice presidential candidate in 2008 couldn't name a single Supreme Court case) actually knew what "blood libel" meant. I was questioning Palin's due diligence and historical knowledge, not her religious sensitivities or substantive points; cheeky, I know, but fair game, I reckoned, given the former Alaska governor's background and experience. 

The response I have received on Twitter to that question, in terms of volume and vitriol was swift and stern. Many people read into my Tweet what they wanted to see or hear about Palin. In return for my question, I got back anger at me for expressing "outrage" about Palin. Anger at me for having used the phrase before and then "criticizing" Palin for using it. Anger at Palin for her choice of words. Anger at Palin for more general reasons. Anger at the media for its coverage of Palin. Anger at the right for its devotion to Palin. Anger at the left for picking on Palin. You get the gist. Anger. Venomous anger. Directed in different directions like the final volley of fireworks on the Fourth of July all at once. Hours later, as I write this, the stinging comments are still coming in.

Please let's not kid ourselves: Saturday's shooting changed nothing about the way we too often communicate with one another on political or ideological issues, especially when it comes to Palin. Indeed, if the nation's hopeful goal in the wake of Arizona is to ratchet down hyperbole in political discourse, to unload hurtful rhetoric by giving words back their meaning, Palin just missed a great opportunity to show her many critics, and her many fans, that she is able and willing to ease off the throttle, especially when she is in the midst of pledging to ease off the throttle. The blood libel is one of the most pernicious and deadly lies in human history. For the sake of the Tucson victims, if not our own, we should all agree to leave it there.

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Andrew Cohen is a contributing editor at The Atlantic, 60 Minutes' first-ever legal analyst, and a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice. He is also chief analyst for CBS Radio News and has won a Murrow Award as one of the nation's leading legal journalists. More

Cohen is the winner of the American Bar Association’s 2012 Silver Gavel Award for his Atlantic commentary about the death penalty in America and the winner of the Humane Society’s 2012 Genesis Award for his coverage of the plight of America’s wild horses. A racehorse owner and breeder, Cohen also is a two-time winner of both the John Hervey and O’Brien Awards for distinguished commentary about horse racing.

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