The rap on Sarah Palin as governor in Alaska was always that in Sarah's world, everything was about Sarah. When the then-governor and Republican vice-presidential candidate fumbled her way through an interview with CBS's Katie Couric seemingly unable to answer the question of "what newspapers and magazines (do) you regularly read," some old friends and ex-employees of Palin joked that the problem was that Palin had the political sense to avoid the honest answer.
The honest answer for Palin, they said, was this: "I only read newspaper and magazine stories with my name in them."
Somehow, this was always a little hard to believe. There had to be more to Palin than that. After all, she had, much to her credit, kick-started her career as an Alaska politician with an effort to create transparency in state government. She couldn't possibly be as self-centered and self-involved as was claimed by some of those who knew her, or had known her, best.
But then came "Sarah Palin's Alaska," a show billed as being about Alaska but really about Sarah Palin, wherein she seemed to take every opportunity to snipe at those who have criticized her or those she simply doesn't like, including First Lady Michelle Obama.
And now, Palin is out with a video about the tragic shooting that left six dead in Tucson, Ariz., including a 9-year-old-girl and a federal judge, and the video is mainly about Sarah Palin. It opens, admittedly, with the obligatory nod to the dead and wounded -- one of whom, Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, the apparent target of a deranged shooter, remains in critical condition after being shot in the head.
"My heart broke for the innocent victims," Palin says. And everyone's heart should be broken. The shooting in Arizona was a senseless, incomprehensible act by a madman. Palin gets past that in about 30 seconds. The rest of her 7-minute, 43-second video is largely about how Sarah Palin shouldn't be held responsible for heating up the political rhetoric in America today.
Did that rhetoric have anything to do with the shooting in Tucson? Nobody knows. Quite possibly not.
But we do know this. We are all influenced by the environments in which we live, and the political environment in Arizona in recent years has been especially contentious and bitter. Arizona passed an anti-immigration law aimed directly at trying to stop the flow into America of Mexicans trying to find a better life. That law has become a subject of national and international debate. Palin herself got involved both in Arizona and in Alaska, where she attacked Sen. Republican candidate Lisa Murkowski for her decision to vote against funding for some sort of reverse "Berlin Wall" along the Arizona-Mexico border to keep the Mexicans out.
Jared Loughner, the alleged shooter in Arizona, posted online comments complaining about people who can't speak English. From his online posting, it is pretty clear Loughner was mentally unstable. Insanity, however, does not make one immune to the surrounding environment. It might, in fact, in some cases, make people more susceptible to it.
I have known crazy people. Some of them you could talk down during their paranoid moments, and some of them could be easily and sometimes accidentally talked up. The crazy people are really different from you and I only in that they have an even more tenuous hold on reality.
Now, all of you who have never, ever had a violent thought can stop reading. Everyone else should continue, because the rhetoric of politics in this country is a legitimate topic for discussion.
"No one should be deterred from speaking up and speaking out in peaceful dissent," Palin says in her video. I cannot disagree. No one who believes in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution can. And personally, I believe the exercise of First Amendment rights is far more important than voting in this country. I believe Americans have not just a right, but a duty, to criticize their government. I believe that the men who wrote the Constitution believed that the ability to speak out for change in America was the way to prevent people from resorting to the Second Amendment to take back their country.
I'm a big believer in the Second Amendment, too. I think that one of the tragedies in Arizona was not the lack of gun control, but the fact that an armed citizen was not physically present at the Giffords rally to shoot Loughner dead on the spot. An armed private citizen was nearby, and did eventually arrive to help subdue Loughner. But an armed security guard or private citizen, contracted by Giffords, would have been a lot more effective than the police, who didn't arrive until after 17 people were shot dead or wounded.
If Sarah Palin had made that case, I would have been all for her. But she didn't. Instead, she made the argument that American politicians -- and most importantly Sarah Palin -- should be able to say whatever they want, whenever they want, without any responsibility for their words. Even a mouthy-to-the-core believer in the First Amendment has problems with that. There are limits. As Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes observed in 1919, it is wrong to falsely shout "fire" in a crowded theater simply to start a panic and see if you can kill someone.
This is a standard that applies to all Americans, but to people like Palin there applies a higher standard, or there should. With power comes responsibility. This is the thing Palin just doesn't seem to get. Pulled from obscurity into the spotlight in a desperation move by Republican presidential candidate John McCain, Palin became an instant celebrity.
Her response was to troop around the country accusing then-Democratic presidential candidate Barrack Obama of "palling around with terrorists," a rather despicable accusation made only more so by its lack of substance. Palin attended political rallies where crowds shouted "kill him, kill him" in reference to Obama and tacitly endorsed those views by failing to denounce them. McCain did the opposite.
After the election of Obama as president, McCain largely faded out of sight. And Palin became the poster girl for those angry with the election of the country's first African-American president. Her response was to amp up the rhetoric. She accused Obama of trying to slip "death panels" into national health care legislation to knock off the elderly or mentally disabled. And now she's at it again.
She couldn't just express her sympathy for the dead and wounded in Tucson. She couldn't simply abhor the violence and suggest we all -- every one of us -- try to be more civil. No, she took this tragedy as an opportunity to stump for the politics of war. "...We certainly must not be deterred by those who embrace evil and call it good," she said.
There are a lot of politicians in this country and this state with whom I disagree on a whole variety of things, but I wouldn't accuse a single one of them of embracing evil. Likewise for anyone who has questioned, no matter in what wrongheaded way, whether the political rhetoric of the moment contributed to events in Tucson.
It is categorically wrong to say political rhetoric is to blame for what happened there, but it is equally wrong to suggest, as Palin does, that political rhetoric can be ruled out as a contributing element, no matter how small. The truth is we don't know what contributed to the crazed thinking of Loughner. But we all know what rhetoric can do.
Rhetoric can stir people to all sorts of action, both good and bad. That is the point of rhetoric.
To refuse to accept that rhetoric could push someone over the edge is unconscionable for a political leader with Palin's power. Her answer to questions about the need for civility is a question: "When was (the rhetoric) less heated, back in those 'calm days' when political figures literally settled their differences with dueling pistols?"
It would be tempting to criticize this as disingenuous if it wasn't just so damn sad. Does Palin in her overblown defense of her own behavior truly believe that any sort of public rhetoric is OK as long as we stop a smidgen short of returning to the age of duels? Or does she think we should go all the way back there before someone says something?
Does Palin just not get it? Does she still think of herself as simply the mayor of Wasilla? If she was spouting off today as the mayor, it wouldn't matter what she said or how she said it, and I'd personally support her right to mutter the craziest nonsense. But she isn't the mayor of Wasilla anymore. She is a politician with a huge bully pulpit and with that comes some responsibility.
She ought at least understand the history of political rhetoric if she's going to get in front of a video camera and claim as she did that "each individual is accountable for his actions. Acts of monstrous criminality stand on their own. They begin and end with the criminals who commit them, not collectively with all citizens of a state."
That's simply not true. The true acts of "monstrous criminality" have been committed "collectively." Adolph Hitler did not act alone. Nazi Germany was a collective effort. The death camps were powered by a collective effort inspired by one man's crazed rhetoric.
Words matter. Words can spawn all sorts of bad acts. Words drove the McCarthyism that in the 1950s imprisoned hundreds of innocent Americans and destroyed the careers, and sometimes lives, of countless more. Sen. Joe McCarthy might have been identified as the lone man leading that monstrous act, but he by no means acted alone.
McCarthyism was a collective, societal mistake that not only punished innocent people but arguably set the war on Communism back by decades.
While America was busy chasing the ghosts of Communists in this country, the Communists in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republicans were busy chasing science. On Oct. 4, 1957, their scientists launched Sputnik, the first satellite in space. America wouldn't catch up with the Soviets there until lefty Democrat John Fitzgerald Kennedy (who, if you go back and read his speech now, sounds like a righty Republican) was elected president in 1960. One of his first acts was an inaugural address that tried to steer Americans away from the destructive tribalism of partisan politics toward some greater good.
"Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country," he pointedly said to all of us before reaching out globally to others with a call to fight the "common enemies of man: tyranny, poverty, disease, and war itself ... All this will not be finished in the first one hundred days. Nor will it be finished in the first one thousand days, nor in the life of this Administration, nor even perhaps in our lifetime on this planet. But let us begin ... Whether you are citizens of America or citizens of the world, ask of us here the same high standards of strength and sacrifice which we ask of you."
"High standards" are what Sarah Palin should be talking about now, but instead the Mama Grizzly is thrashing the shrubbery again (that's what Mama Grizzlies tend to do) with new accusations about how "journalists and pundits should not manufacture a blood libel."
I could not agree with her more. But I don't think she understands the origins of the term "blood libel." The "blood libel" was a lie told to inspire hatred against Jews in Medevial England. The Jews were accused falsely of torturing to death a Christian child and of using his blood to make matzos for Passover.
There is no hoax in Tucson. There is a real-life tragedy. People are dead and suffering. And there is a national discussion underway about whether rhetoric -- rhetoric on the part of all of us with political opinions, which includes me, you and Sarah Palin -- might have played a role.
And all Sarah Palin seems to want to talk about is, well, Sarah Palin.
Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com