Almost from the moment of the Tucson shootings, we have been hearing a stream of reporting along the lines of: “While it appears the shooter had indications of mental illness and nothing connects him to any extremist rhetoric,…” — pause — “we are going to latch onto this story as a platform from which to discuss extreme political rhetoric anyway.”

This isn’t just silly, it is dangerous. We do have segments of our political class who use virulent rhetoric to achieve political ends. Whether the media gives such messages a pass, under free speech considerations or otherwise, or the media condemns it as reprehensible, the result is the same. Rhetoric requires attention to be powerful, and either way the corrosive speakers gain their desired power.

There is a particularly raw example going around the past couple of days, the now-infamous political map issued by Sarah Palin, identifying vulnerable House Democrats in swing districts, using an unfortunate “cross hairs” graphic. What interests me most is the reaction of the anti-Palin forces who, in the wake of the Tucson shootings, have decried Palin’s map as a prime example of this sort of violence-inciting rhetoric. I ask myself, are there people who really think the intent of this map was to incite people to pick up a gun and assassinate Democratic candidates?

I can list all sorts of reasons not to believe this. Right at the top of the list is the obvious reality that nothing would be more politically counterproductive. Think how potent a political force sympathy for Rep. Giffords will be going forward, just as it would have been for, God forbid, her Democratic successor. Killing — literally killing — one’s political opponents is not a recipe for majority electoral success.

Beyond that, there are these truths. The very term “cross-hairs” is widely used as a metaphor. Here is an article from the NY Times just this past November, headlined, “Corporate Lawyers in the Cross Hairs” (http://dealbook.nytimes.com/2010/11/11/putting-lawyers-in-the-cross-hairs/). Was the NY Times reporting that snipers had taken up residence in various corporate boardrooms, their gun sights trained on the corporate lawyers? Don’t think so.

I use the “cross hairs” phrase occasionally myself, and I’ve never owned, held or shot a gun since an entertaining hour of skeet shooting with a work associate more than 25 year ago. I never even connect my use of the phrase to the literal idea of a gun scope. For that matter, cross hairs are used in periscope sites, too, right? I doubt submarines were in Palin’s mind at the time her map came out, but it serves to demonstrate that this is a generic, multi-purpose phrase used in many contexts besides gun scopes.

To those who have been quick to condemn Palin’s use of this unfortunate metaphor, and have raised the spector of this type of rhetoric in connection with this weekend’s shootings, I urge you to be midful that extremist rhetoric works only because we have created a world in which shaded information and outright disinformation are effective. One may think that stretching and distorting the meaning of Palin’s map into “go shoot Democrats” is a necessary counterweight to right-wing rhetorical excess. But doing so only perpetuates the destructively fertile conditions in which rhetorical excess of all stripes can flourish. You distort them; they justify distorting you. And thus the cycle continues, and we the people lose.

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