It doesn't require actual violence for the left in America to malign the right as bloodthirsty. So fertile are their imaginations -- or so flexible their ethical constraints -- that even the most orderly and irenic gathering can be twisted into something sinister. Throughout the spring and summer of 2009, as peaceful tea party protesters, clutching their copies of the Constitution, demonstrated against what they regarded as government overreach, the left erupted with bug-eyed warnings that the movement was inciting violence and extremism.
Actual violence isn't necessary for the left's campaign to slander the right, but it is useful. Former President Clinton, with the help of the left-leaning press, cynically pinned responsibility for the Oklahoma City bombing on "talk radio." Because conservative talk shows expressed hostility to big government, he argued, they were creating a "climate of hate" that inspired Timothy McVeigh.
Strangely, the left never perceived a link between the rhetoric of Al Gore and the violence of environmental extremist "Unabomber" Ted Kaczynski, or say, the anti-free trade stance of American labor unions with anti-globalization riots that have accompanied all of the IMF and World Bank meetings of the past several years.
Last year, liberal politicians and commentators urged the nation to refrain from jumping to conclusions when Maj. Nidal Hasan, shouting "Allahu Akbar," gunned down 45 fellow soldiers (killing 13). But when it suits their preferred narrative, liberals jump most eagerly, and it must be said, contemptibly, to conclusions.
When an obviously deranged killer (of no coherent political persuasion) gunned down a dozen people over the weekend in Tucson, Ariz., liberals in the press permitted no space for civility or decency. The temptation metaphorically to dip their hands in the blood of Gabrielle Giffords was overpowering. Even as the victims were being rushed to the hospital, commentators from The New York Times, CNN, and other outlets were suggesting that conservative, anti-government attitudes were responsible for the bloodshed. Sarah Palin came in for extra licks.
Tom Ashbrook, host of NPR's "On Point," was explicit in blaming conservatives. "It's a Democratic congresswoman who's been shot through the head!" he protested when a guest (this columnist) suggested that both liberals and conservatives of course condemn violence.
Well, yes. And it's a tragedy. But would it be any different if a Republican had been shot? Ronald Reagan was nearly killed by a similarly mentally ill gunman. Did anyone suggest that liberals or Democrats encouraged or inspired John Hinckley?
The "tone" of our politics has become so inflamed, they lament. But they really don't mean "our" politics; they mean conservatism. There was no hand-wringing by liberals during the past decade when leftist protesters routinely shouted for George W. Bush's blood (see Binscorner.com). Look, the world would be a better place if everyone toned down the vitriol -- but it wouldn't make a particle of difference when it comes to gun violence.
And that's what is being obscured by this focus on political rhetoric. We do have a serious problem with gun violence. We have a particular problem with unbalanced people who decide to shoot up a school or shopping mall or political event to achieve -- however fleetingly -- fame. Some part of the blame for this sickness must be laid at the feet of the media, whose blanket coverage of such events encourages the lunatics.
Another part of the blame may belong to an entertainment culture that glorifies and glamorizes gun violence. Every society has mentally ill people. But the way paranoid schizophrenics and other mentally impaired people choose to behave is influenced by culture.
Neither of those aspects of our society is likely to change. But a third feature -- our legal framework for handling those who resist treatment -- can and should change. Widespread deinstitutionalization of the mentally ill, along with laws that require a showing of dangerousness before a person can be involuntarily subjected to treatment, make it exceedingly difficult to stop a crazed gunman before his murderous spree.
In the Tucson case, as in the Virginia Tech case, others noticed the gunmen's oddity in advance but were unable to force them to get treatment. According to the Treatment Advocacy Center, assisted outpatient treatment laws, if enforced, can radically reduce the number of hospitalizations, incarcerations, and violent episodes among those required to participate.
A misplaced respect for personal autonomy -- the right to reject treatment -- arguably carries too high a price, particularly now when pharmacological treatment is so benign, and when the kinds of crimes committed by the untreated mentally ill are so heinous.
That's the discussion we should be having.