Did Sarah Palin's Target Map Play Role in Giffords Shooting?

Was it yelling fire in a crowded theater?

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In March of 2010, Sarah Palin released a map of 20 Congressional districts she and John McCain had won in 2008 but whose Congressmen had voted in favor of the recently passed health care reform bill. The map, released amid a wave of small-scale violence against Democratic lawmakers, marked each targeted district with a set of crosshairs. Palin, who had promoted the map by tweeting "Don't Retreat, Instead - RELOAD," drew controversy with the map, which some critics saw as a winking approval of violence.

On Saturday, Arizona Democrat Gabrielle Giffords, one of the 20 targeted Congressmen, was shot in the head by 22-year-old Jared Loughner, whose attack wounded 13 others and killed six. Loughner, who appears to have planned methodically to kill Giffords, had recently shown signs of severe mental deterioration, according to friends and acquaintances. In the wake of his shocking and senseless attack, a number of commentators are asking, as The Atlantic's James Fallows put it, "whether there is a connection between" such "extreme, implicitly violent political rhetoric and imagery" as that published by Palin and "actual outbursts of violence, whatever the motivations of this killer turn out to be." In other words, did Palin's map cross the line famously described by Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes as "falsely shouting fire in a theater and causing a panic?" Here's the debate.

Palin at Fault

  • What Palin Did Wrong  The Atlantic's Andrew Sullivan clarifies, "No one is saying Sarah Palin should be viewed as an accomplice to murder. Many are merely saying that her recklessly violent and inflammatory rhetoric has poisoned the discourse and has long run the risk of empowering the deranged. We are saying it's about time someone took responsibility for this kind of rhetorical extremism, because it can and has led to violence and murder." He points out that Giffords herself had expressed concern about Palin's map.
  • 'Imagery of Armed Revolution'  The New York Times' Matt Bai writes, "it's hard not to think [Loughner] was at least partly influenced by a debate that often seems to conflate philosophical disagreement with some kind of political Armageddon." Bai explains, "The problem would seem to rest with the political leaders who pander to the margins of the margins, employing whatever words seem likely to win them contributions or TV time, with little regard for the consequences." He says Palin and other used "imagery of armed revolution. Popular spokespeople like Ms. Palin routinely drop words like 'tyranny' and 'socialism' when describing the president and his allies, as if blind to the idea that Americans legitimately faced with either enemy would almost certainly take up arms. "
  • The Psychology of Incited Violence  At Psychology Today, neurologist David Weisman writes, "The question is not 'did Sarah Palin's violent rhetoric cause this shooting?' The question is 'does inciting violence factor in a multi-factorial process?'" Weisman explores the decision-making process and role of unconscious biases, concluding, "Although there is little clear evidence in this case, the data highlights the importance of butterfly events on human actions. Jared Loughner is clearly deranged. He drank deeply from internal insanity and external stimuli.  His actions did not take place in a vacuum."

Palin Not at Fault

  • 'Inflamed Rhetoric' Is Part of Free Speech  Slate's Jack Shafer says the calls "to take our political conversation down a few notches might make sense if anybody had been calling for the assassination in the first place, which they hadn't." He cautions, "Any call to cool 'inflammatory' speech is a call to police all speech, and I can't think of anybody in government, politics, business, or the press that I would trust with that power." Shafer adds, "Asking us to forever hold our tongues lest we awake their deeper demons infantilizes and neuters us and makes politicians no safer."
  • 'Bashing' Palin Is About 'Political Agendas'  "Here we go again in Arizona," The Daily Beast's Howard Kurtz sighs, "as people with political agendas unleash their attacks even before the victims of this senseless shooting have been buried. I find it depressing beyond belief. This isn't about a nearly year-old Sarah Palin map; it's about a lone nutjob who doesn't value human life. It would be nice if we briefly put aside partisan differences and came together with sympathy and support for Gabby Giffords and the other victims, rather than opening rhetorical fire ourselves."
  • Palin Victim of 'Blood Libel'  Glenn Reynolds fumes in the Wall Street Journal, "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. But if Republicans do it, it somehow creates a climate of hate. There's a climate of hate out there, all right, but it doesn't derive from the innocuous use of political clichés. And former Gov. Palin and the tea party movement are more the targets than the source."
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.