Limbaugh was right then, and he's wrong now. Tarring one's political adversaries as accomplices to murder while calling for greater civility in public debate is a neat trick if you can pull it off, but it's still a trick.
"I understand the First Amendment," Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick told Fox News the day after the Dallas massacre. "I understand freedom of speech."
Yet in the next breath, Patrick insisted that "you can't go out on social media and mainstream media and everywhere else and say that the police are racist, that the police are hateful, the police are killers." He argued that "too many in the general public who aren't criminals but have a big mouth are creating situations like we saw last night."
It must be said that the alleged connection between Johnson and criticism of police is more plausible than the alleged connection between Loughner and the bare-knuckle politicking represented by Sarah Palin's notorious map with crosshairs over the congressional districts of Democrats targeted for defeat. Loughner had no discernible ideology, and his motive for trying to assassinate Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) remains obscure, while Johnson, who deliberately shot white cops, was avowedly avenging the police shootings that prompted the Black Lives Matter protest during which he opened fire.
Still, it is neither fair nor reasonable to judge a cause by the people who commit violence in its name, which is what Patrick and his allies would have us do. On his show last Friday, Limbaugh declared that Black Lives Matter is "quickly becoming a terrorist group committing hate crimes."
Limbaugh's guest, Heather Mac Donald, author of The War on Cops, said President Obama is also implicated. "President Obama lied to the nation last night, and he embraced the Black Lives Matter myth that there is a racist war by white officers against black civilians in this country," she said. "And we see the results."
What Obama actually said was that "all of us as Americans should be troubled by these shootings," referring to the deaths of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and Philando Castile in Falcon Heights, Minnesota -- incidents in which police killed black men who seemed to pose no threat that would justify the use of lethal force. "These are not isolated incidents," he said. "They're symptomatic of a broader set of racial disparities that exist in our criminal justice system."
Obama cited statistics indicating that blacks are more likely than whites to be stopped by police, to be searched, to be arrested and to be shot, and that they tend to receive longer sentences for comparable crimes. "When incidents like [these shootings] occur," he said, "there's a big chunk of our fellow citizenry that feels as if, because of the color of their skin, they are not being treated the same."
Contrary to Mac Donald's gloss, Obama did not say anything about the motives underlying questionable police shootings, let alone charge police with waging "a racist war." In fact, he expressed his "extraordinary appreciation and respect for the vast majority of police officers who put their lives on the line to protect us every single day."
One can question the significance of the disparities Obama cited (as Mac Donald does), and one can question his focus on skin color when the problem of excessive force transcends race. But if this sort of mild commentary is beyond the pale because it might inspire murder, any discussion of controversial issues has to be seen as a threat to public safety, an attitude that makes free and open debate impossible.