Except for an initial intemperate Tweet, I stayed largely silent -- on the Internets, at least -- during the early hours of the Gabrielle Giffords saga on Saturday afternoon. I don't think myself exceptionally wise or laudable for the silence: I was covering my butt. There's nothing like holding forth on What It All Means in the early aftermath of an event, only to find out the story is completely different. I didn't want to completely embarrass myself.
But I had my suspicions. I thought a Tea Partier did it.
I'm glad I kept those suspicions to myself, though. Turns out the alleged shooter, Jared Loughner, is just plumb crazy. Unless he had an accomplice, trying to suss out some larger meaning from this story is going to turn out to be a fool's errand. Sometimes, crazy is just crazy. It's tragic and awful and stupid. Period. No bigger lesson to be learned.
As I say, though, I spend the first hour or two of the unfolding story convinced -- and deeply angered by that conviction -- a Tea Partier (or somebody influenced by the Tea Party) had committed the awful crime.
I don't think it was unreasonable for that to be my instinctive reaction. I do think many of my fellow liberals would've been better served by waiting for facts to emerge, but I also don't think their assumptions were entirely unreasonable either.
Because we take Tea Party rhetoric seriously.
Let's back up, and let me see if I can frame this in a way my conservative and TP-inclined friends understand. Remember when Timothy McVeigh blew up the federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995? I'll bet you assumed Arab-Muslim terrorists committed that awful act in the first hours of that unfolding story. Lots of people did. Why? Well, because of the track record. America had been through the first World Trade Center bombing a couple of years earlier, the Beirut barracks bombing a decade before that, and we'd generally been conditioned to understand that there was one likely source of big, bombastic violence against Americans. Turned out we were all wrong, though.
Well, Tea Partiers, I hate to tell you this, but that's how a lot of liberals see you these days.
Because we take Tea Party -- and Republican -- rhetoric seriously.
And that rhetoric has been liberal, to say the least, in its use of language deploying terms of violence and revolution.
* "The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants." A Jefferson quote that found great currency at Tea Party rallies.
* "I hope that's not where we're going, but you know, if this Congress keeps going the way it is, people are really looking toward those Second Amendment remedies. They're saying: My goodness, what can we do to turn this country around?" Sharron Angle, 2010's Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate, in her campaign against Harry Reid.
* "I'm not saying the Democrats are fascists. I'm saying the government under Bush and under Obama and under all of the presidents that we've seen or at least most of the presidents that we've seen for quite some time are slowly but surely moving us away from our republic and into a system of fascism." Glenn Beck, sounding off on a theme he has pursued tenaciously over the last two years.
* "This bill is the greatest threat to freedom that I've seen in the 19 years I've been in Washington." Then-House Minority Leader John Boehner, upon passage of the Affordable Care Act, also known as ObamaCare.
I could go on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on. But I won't. Some of these folks are at the fringe of respectable discourse, but a remarkable number of them are well within the mainstream of our country's dialogue. The message from both elected officials and Tea Partiers in the street has been clear and consistent:
* And the Tea Party movement sees itself as heir to an earlier generation of Americans who threw off the shackes of tyranny with a violent revolution.
All this comes from a movement that cherishes the Second Amendment -- not just because folks want to go hunting and keep their families safe, but in large part because they believe that the threat of armed rebellion will keep the government in line.
As Matt Yglesias says: "If you believed, as Beck purports to, that progressive agenda is a form of totalitarianism wouldn't violent remedies be appropriate?"
It's not as though we haven't been down this road before. Those of us on the left remember the Clinton Administration for many unhappy events, but chief among them was (coming full circle) Timothy McVeigh, an anti-government radical who blew up the federal building in Oklahoma City. We remember G. Gordon Liddy telling listeners to take "head shots" at ATF agents and somehow remaining a member in good standing on conservative talk radio to this day.
I know a number of my conservative friends believe that political point-scoring was behind the left's immediate effort to blame the Giffords shooting on right-wing rhetoric. I have no doubt there was some of that. We all know how the cycle works by now.
But Tea Partiers and conservatives have spent two years employing the rhetoric of violence and revolt. Yes, there are occasional similar efforts on the left -- but really, the phenomenon belongs almost exclusively to the right. Some of us take the rhetoric seriously. We're meant to take the rhetoric seriously, I think.
So while I think it was wrong for my friends on the left to jump to conclusions, I have frankly little pity for conservatives who are indignant about that jumping. You've spent the last two years crying wolf. Are we to be blamed for believing you believe what you say? And if we believe that you believe what you say, can you blame us for making certain assumptions when a Democratic congresswoman ends up with a bullet in her brain?
If you don't like those assumptions, friends, there's something you can do: Stop playing make-believe with the language of armed revolt. We'll stop believing in your propensity for violence when you stop telling us all about it.