Jonathan Chait

Arguments Before Evidence

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[Guest post by James Downie:]

Like Jon, I have a hard time connecting right-wing rhetoric to the shooting in Tucson. Yes, the half-term governor of Alaska and Murdoch’s propaganda machine have contributed more than the left to a “climate of hate.” But to tie that climate to Loughner, one has to resort to assumptions, without a direct connection, which have allowed conservatives room to claim innocence. Yet mostly absent from the debate have been far easier cases to connect to conservative rhetoric (via the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence):

July 27, 2008Jim Adkisson shoots and kills two people at a progressive church in Knoxville, Tennessee, wounding two. Adkisson calls it “a symbolic killing” because he really “wanted to kill…every Democrat in the Senate & House, the 100 people in Bernard Goldberg's book,” but was unable to gain access to them.

December 23, 2009Warren "Gator" Taylor takes three people hostage at a federal post office in Wytheville, Virginia. He is armed with four guns, including a .40-caliber Glock pistol, despite a criminal record that includes convictions for lewd and lascivious beheavior with a 13 year-old and attempted second-degree murder (Taylor shot his ex-wife three times in a parking lot in 1993). Taylor fires at least three rounds before the stand-off ends, including one at the station's fleeing postmaster. One of Taylor's hostages reports that he was angry about taxes and "the government taking over the right to bear arms."

July 11, 2010Supporters of Tea Party candidate Joe Miller openly carry assault rifles and handguns during a community parade in Eagle River and Chugiak, Alaska, while young children march alongside them. Miller, who is running against Senator Lisa Murkowski in the Republican primary, was endorsed by former Alaska governor Sarah Palin, who described him as a “true Commonsense Constitutional Conservative.”

July 18, 2010California Highway Patrol officers arrest Byron Williams, 45, after a shootout on I-580 in which more than 60 rounds are fired. Officers had pulled Williams over in his pick-up for speeding and weaving in and out of traffic when he opened fire on them with a handgun and a long gun. Williams, a convicted felon, is shot several times, but survives because he is wearing body armor. Williams, a convicted felon, reveals that he was on his way to San Francisco to "start a revolution" by killing employees of the ACLU and Tides Foundation. Williams' mother says her son was angry at "Left-wing politicians" and upset by "the way Congress was railroading through all these Left-wing agenda items." [Note: Williams was later quoted as crediting Glenn Beck for inspiration: "The things he exposed...blew my mind."]

If Loughner is circumstantial evidence (at best), then these are DNA matches. (I’ve left out numerous cases of violence tied to right-wing militias, as well as the death of George Tiller, sticking instead to ones most closely tied to mainstream conservative views.) There’s no debate in any of those four cases as to what’s responsible for the violence (or, in the case of Joe Miller's supporters, the military dictatorship-esque intimidation). Such violence and intimidation will, in all likelihood, continue to occur, as long as Obama is president and Fox News et. al. continue to wax apocalyptic.

Many will reply, “Well, doesn’t that just prove the point?” Perhaps, but, by making the point sans direct evidence, liberals have framed the debate in a far less compelling fashion than was possible. And it barely matters if the connection turns out to be true, because few will believe that those who had made the accusation before the evidence did so in good faith, motivated by the facts, rather than partisanship. Simply put, in the eyes of those liberals wish to persuade, the argument loses legitimacy, no matter how accurate it turns out to be. Not surprisingly, then, most Americans do not see a connection between Jared Loughner and today’s political climate, nor that incendiary rhetoric on the right causes violence at all, even though there is plenty of direct evidence for it. Best to leave the postulating to the right.

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