WASHINGTON — It’s a bad sign for civility when you can’t have a civil conversation about it.
In the days since a deranged assassin gunned down Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and 19 other innocents —six of whom are now dead -- President Barack Obama, Speaker John Boehner and pundits from across the political spectrum have issued calls to raise the discourse and practice mutual respect.
Even Fox News President Roger Ailes, an architect of on- air, anger-based politics, directed his commentators to turn down the heat. What struck some liberals as a hollow gesture was the right gesture nonetheless, and credit goes to Ailes for making it.
An exception to the general comity was celebrity club fighter Sarah Palin, one Fox pundit who seems not to have gotten Ailes’ memo. Wednesday she raised the incivility a notch in a slickly produced video message that was primarily concerned not with the victims of the shooting but with the person who is in her eyes the constant victim: herself.
After the requisite expression of mourning and sorrow, Palin took after “journalists and pundits” who “should not manufacture a blood libel that serves only to incite the very hatred and violence they purport to condemn.” No viewer could have failed to understand who had been supposedly libeled.
Ponder the narcissism required for Palin to place herself at the center of the narrative, and with such incendiary language. “Blood libel” refers to a centuries-old calumny used to justify the savage persecution of Jews on the fictitious grounds that they murdered Christian children to use their blood in rituals.
It’s true that some pundits and journalists had called out Palin by name for having used what looked like rifle crosshairs to mark targeted congressional districts — including Giffords’ in Arizona — during the last election. But it was Giffords herself, now in intensive care with a bullet wound in her brain, who months earlier had spoken in a television interview of being in the “crosshairs of a gun sight over our district.” Such displays, Gifford said politely, have consequences. Palin’s display remained up.
Employing “blood libel” when so much real blood has been spilled, Palin did the one thing she knows how to do: pick a fight. Martial references are the tea party’s lingua franca, justifying righteous patriots taking up arms against an illegitimate government, as the colonists did. That’s part of why there is such an effort to make Obama into an illegitimate leader, a closet Kenyan with no more authority over Americans than King George III had.
No serious person blames the rampage of the accused shooter, Jared Loughner, on Palin. The fast-emerging picture of Loughner is that of a mentally unstable misfit with no discernible belief system. Not Palin or Rush Limbaugh or Keith Olbermann made him do it.
But that doesn’t mean “journalists and pundits” can’t wonder out loud about the militancy — a more accurate word than mere “incivility” to describe politics today — that’s crept into our debate. After all, Loughner didn’t shoot up a country club or the Safeway supermarket, but a political event in its parking lot where he took point-blank aim at the head of a member of Congress. Forgive us for wincing at the image of crosshairs on Giffords’ district, or the memory of Palin urging her supporters to “reload.”
This tragedy confirms, in case you hadn’t noticed, that the gun debate in this country is over and the National Rifle Association won. If you were a politician who supported gun control but weren’t from near a big city, the NRA had the muscle to defeat you. Cop-killer bullets, plastic guns that can get through airport security, the gun-show loophole — you go against the NRA at your electoral peril.
Perhaps Palin’s extreme language was overcompensation for unexpressed feelings of regret. Imagine if she’d said instead:
“I reject those who have linked me with the deranged acts of a madman. But I have thought about how we talk about our differences and each other. I’m going to temper my language and hope others will too.”
Those pundits and journalists she loves to fight with would have been left speechless.
MARGARET CARLSON, author of “Anyone Can Grow Up: How George Bush and I Made It to the White House” and former White House correspondent for Time magazine, is a Bloomberg News columnist.