1. Is violent political rhetoric a problem?
2. Did violent political rhetoric cause the shooting?
My answers would be "yes" and "no," respectively. All the details we've learned about Jared Lee Loughner point to him being mentally ill, probably schizophrenic, and harboring a hodge-podge of paranoid beliefs that don't place him neatly on the political spectrum. Even if we eventually find out that he took some inspiration from political speeches or talk radio, there is no direct line of culpability from Palin et al. to the shooting.
But we shouldn't make our debate about question 1 contingent on whatever Loughner's motivations turn out to be. People were criticizing the overheated political climate long before this tragedy occurred and should continue to do so. I think that's what George Packer meant when he said that Loughner's motivations don't matter. And I'm starting to see similar responses from bloggers across the political spectrum, from David Frum, Ezra Klein, Brendan Nyhan, and Jonathan Chait.
Klein and Chait both go on to defend the presence of anger and passion in our political debates, and I second that. I get angry about politics all the time, because the stakes are often huge. But it's a big leap from giving an angry defense of your views to proclaiming armed revolution if you don't get your way. From Chait:
Since the closing stages of the 2008 election, conservatives have regularly described President Obama as an alien figure and his policies a fundamental threat to American liberty. It has become normal for conservatives to hint that they will take up arms if they don't get their way politically -- a violation of the cultural norm of respecting democratic outcomes that forms the basis for the stability of our political system.
There's no doubt that many politicians and media personalities have fostered a climate in which violence is seen as a credible force for change. "Watering the tree of liberty" and all that. We should all condemn that trend, as it has worsened rapidly and worryingly in the past few years.
Unfortunately the debate of the past few days seems to have coalesced into "was he or wasn't he motivated by politics?" which blurs the questions and misses the larger point.