I was struck by today’s response of Sarah Palin to criticism that her rhetoric and “targeting” of Rep. Gifford’s district may have added to the recent massacre in Tucson. In fairness to Palin, the family stated today that Jared Loughner did not watch news or listen to talk radio. However, I was most interested in her claim that the attacks against her and conservative commentators amounted to a “blood libel.”
On her Facebook page, Palin has the following comments:
But, especially within hours of a tragedy unfolding, journalists and pundits should not manufacture a blood libel that serves only to incite the very hatred and violence they purport to condemn. That is reprehensible.
There are those who claim political rhetoric is to blame for the despicable act of this deranged, apparently apolitical criminal. And they claim political debate has somehow gotten more heated just recently. But when was it less heated? Back in those “calm days” when political figures literally settled their differences with dueling pistols? In an ideal world all discourse would be civil and all disagreements cordial. But our Founding Fathers knew they weren’t designing a system for perfect men and women. If men and women were angels, there would be no need for government. Our Founders’ genius was to design a system that helped settle the inevitable conflicts caused by our imperfect passions in civil ways. So, we must condemn violence if our Republic is to endure.
Of course, she is not speaking of actual libel. Such criticism of the over-the-top rhetoric of conservative commentators is clearly opinion and not defamation.
“Blood libel” is a term usually associated with religious groups who are accused to killing innocents. Blood libels have a strong anti-Semitic history, such as claims that Jews feed on the flesh or blood of innocent children. For that reason, the Anti-Defamation League has denounced the use of the term — though I do not believe that the simple use of this term is evidence of any anti-semiticism by Palin.
That is a pretty loaded term to use for the criticism over violent terminology and over-heated rhetoric. Indeed, it seems to emphasize a degree of persecution. There is probably some distance between dueling and discourse.
The closest term in torts is “group libel” which (as discussed earlier) is generally difficult to establish.
If either term is relevant, there appears to be an ongoing effort on both sides to tag the other with the massacre. Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik stated “The kind of rhetoric that flows from people like Rush Limbaugh, in my judgment he is irresponsible, uses partial information, sometimes wrong information. . . [Limbaugh] attacks people, angers them against government, angers them against elected officials and that kind of behavior in my opinion is not without consequences.”
Limbaugh has reportedly fired back by saying that the Democratic Party supports Loughner and is “attempting to find anybody but him to blame.”
In the meantime, members are moving toward a spasm of new laws to criminalize speech.
There is of course another obvious possibility: Loughner is mentally unstable and fully motivated by his own personal demons. Of course, this does not mean that we should not reexamine the rhetoric of our politics.
Frankly, I also share the concern of conservative commentators with politicians like Bernie Sanders (who I agree with on many issues) referring to the massacre in fundraising appeals. This massacre has somehow become about the politicians as opposed to the killer or the victims. That alone says something about the state of our politics.